In the early hours of 6 September, our dear friend, artist Billy Apple, concluded one final part of his exceptional living artist project. Apple’s connection to Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki is long and seminal, and early exhibitions at the Gallery were instrumental in his decision to finally return to Aotearoa. In his final weeks he reflected that the Gallery has been his primary ‘place of business’, and his passing will be a loss for staff across our organisation who have been part of all dimensions of his life’s work over several decades.
There hasn’t been a more present and visible person on the Auckland art scene since Apple’s return to his hometown in 1990. He visited almost every exhibition, connected with artists over their work, negotiated with art dealers and, in more ways than one, lived by example. He was an artist who most young students and practitioners encountered early in their life with art – either through meeting, discussion or exchange.
From Barrie Bates to Billy Apple
Apple’s biography traverses key moments in the New Zealand, British and New York art scenes. Firstly, in the 1960s, as a student at the Royal College of Art and an artist during the ‘third wave’ of British Pop. Then, in the 1970s, as Apple catches the growing expansion of American Pop and exhibits alongside many key figures in this period. Through exhibitions such as The American Supermarket at Bianchini Gallery in 1964, his work connected with a critical moment in which the boundaries between art and the marketplace were in question. From this point, and towards the close of the decade, Apple reformed himself within a period of heightened experimentation at APPLE Gallery into a largely process-based artist whose actions of life entered into his art. His 1980s’ canvases reveal the behind-the-scenes of the art market, a system he continued to test into the new millennium demonstrating how art infiltrates life.
Bastion of British Pop, Lawrence Alloway, once rejected Apple’s highly conceptual painting of an empty artwork label for exhibition. Although Young Contemporaries 1962, 1961 was the poster for the 1962 Young Contemporaries exhibition at the Royal College of Art, Alloway couldn’t quite foresee it as a legitimate work of art.
For me, this still stands as one of the great Apple works. It’s effectively an open ticket for entry into the world as an artist, saying ‘please sign here’ and once you have signed, you’re now part of this world, an ‘artist’. The following year, he would emerge as Billy Apple and begin the brand in development as in life.
It’s hard to imagine an artist with a broader contribution, creating fluidity around the acceptable boundaries of art, design and ‘ideas-based’ practice. Using an ad-man’s vernacular, Apple worked smartly to ‘grab attention’ in the manner of his peer-in-neon, artist Bruce Nauman. It’s wonderful to see pages and pages of social media fill with anecdotes, personal testimonies and, most of all, tributes to this artist and his life’s work.
An artist who lived like no one else
Billy Apple first arrived back in New Zealand in May 1975 from New York. He hadn’t visited the country since 1959, when he’d left for London as Barrie Bates prior to his transformation into ‘Billy Apple’ in 1962. It was only a year after his solo exhibition at London’s Serpentine Galleries. Ostensibly, the trip to New Zealand was to visit family, yet within days he was connecting with the local art scene.
Just before his death, Apple concluded a gift to the Gallery’s collection of a suite of works which capture key moments in his career, from that first return in 1975 when he turned his attention back home. They are photographs and documents of his two 1970s’ exhibitions, reconceived as artworks under Apple’s display conditions: A Gallery Abstract of Michael Lett Gallery at its original location with young artist Ryan Moore as collaborator; and the acrylic on canvas, From the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki Collection, 2017, finalised after the retrospective exhibition and executed by Terry Maitland. Maitland was not only a long-time collaborator of Apple’s, but also a signwriter at the Gallery for over 30 years.
The gift was announced at the launch of Apple’s first monograph at Auckland Art Gallery, Billy Apple: Life/Work. It was important to Apple that artists are also taken seriously as ‘stakeholders’ and this gift makes public a less-known part of the Apple brand – his generosity. This wasn’t generosity without an attached transaction, of course, but generosity as an act of social expansion.
Even in his earliest years, Apple had a shrewd awareness of the need for collaborators – partners, negotiators, buyers, dealers, curators, writers, photographers, designers – a system to be worked, and he incorporated this into his work. More than most, he implicitly understood that art was a networked system and he situated himself as a creative decision-maker in that system.
Apple’s ‘place of business’
Since that first visit home in 1975, Apple’s exhibitions at Auckland Art Gallery have included, but are not limited to, the solo artist projects, 8 x 8 Subtraction and Untitled Subtraction (1975); Revealed/Concealed: The Given as an Art Political Statement (1979–80); As Good as Gold: Billy Apple Art transactions (1992); and his retrospective Billy Apple®: The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else (2015) curated by Christina Barton.
In many ways, these exhibitions cast their lens on the Gallery and its network of associations and participants. They formed the basis of an ongoing relationship that continued up until, and after, his final retrospective project.
Just as Auckland has been Apple’s home since he permanently returned to New Zealand, so has Auckland Art Gallery been his ‘home station’ in so many respects. In his inimitable way, Apple slipped through the walls, behind the scenes, into the art stores and across the stages of this organisation.
Our thoughts are with the artist’s wife, Mary Morrison, and his family at this time.