Billy Apple

Witte de With

In 1962, the British rock ’n’ roll singer Billy Fury had a box-office hit with his film debut as struggling musician Billy Universe in Play It Cool. The same year, David Hockney caused a stir by wearing a rock-star-worthy gold lamé jacket onstage to receive the Royal College of Art’s Gold Medal. He had also come back to London from a trip to New York the previous year with bleached hair, citing a contemporary Clairol commercial to the effect that “blonds have more fun.” Later that year, in a moment immortalized by the photograph Billy Apple Bleaching with Lady Clairol Instant Crème Whip, November 1962, graduating Royal College student Barrie Bates re-created himself as “Billy Apple.”

In the first section of an incisive two-part solo exhibition on the New Zealand–based artist, curators Nicolaus Schafhausen and Zoë Gray traced what Apple himself has called “a history of the brand.” Early artworks pared back to little except an assertion of the new name—for example, Signature Piece, 1962–63, a lithograph of a page of his passport bearing name and portrait, or the self-explanatorily titled Neon (Red) Signature, 1967—eventually establishing a graphic identity that includes the repeated use of the form of an apple, the typeface Futura, and the proportions of the golden ratio.

In this trajectory, Pop art’s embrace of commercial culture becomes a blunt reduction of art objects to promotional tools and commodities. By the 1980s, Apple was making prints and paintings that simply bore descriptions of their transactional status, including the dealer price list classics “N.F.S.” and “P.O.A.,” and—most brazenly of all— “From the Collection,” a series in which canvases baldly declare their commissioned provenance. In lieu of, say, Andy Warhol’s nonchalant blankness, we find a passive-aggressive parsimony. Conventional appearances—both conceptual and physical—seem eager to be taken seriously, but offer as little as possible in return.

The show’s second part was titled “Revealed/Concealed,” for which Apple was invited to extend his censure, works doing just that to gallery spaces, critiquing any spatial asymmetries and other distractions from the ideal of the white cube. He reshaped an entire floor of Witte de With, removing two internal rooms and uncovering windows; his instructions to the gallery and a diagram of the alterations were presented as wall drawings in the space. Here again, tone trumps concept. Oddly strident, perversely dry, his demands skate to the brink of humor, utterly deadpan.

In both parts of the show, the curators succeeded by allowing Apple to activate his ideas in the present more than they argue for historical significance. A billboard in central Rotterdam reinserted Apple’s best line—copyrighted, even—into the contemporary Dutch debate about state support for art: THE ARTIST HAS TO LIVE LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE. Somewhere between a plea for support and a demand for conformism, the sentence also serves as the title of an ongoing series whose works collectors acquire by paying a personal bill of Apple’s that is then affixed to a print repeating the phrase. The selection of these works here provides such moments of bathos as a traffic ticket and an IOU for money borrowed from the artist’s mother, but accentuates the dogged commitment to a career that makes this exhibition itself approach the condition of an artwork.

Jon Bywater