Billy Apple®was born Barrie George Bates in Auckland, New Zealand, December 31, 1935. In 1959, he gained admission to study graphic design at the Royal College of Art in London. After graduating in 1962, alongside David Hockney, R J Kitaj, Peter Phillips and others, this new crop of maverick ‘pop’ artists quickly developed a reputation for their seemingly irreverent preference for appropriating motifs from popular culture and everyday life, challenging traditional definitions of art media and exploiting methods of communication. Bates began a career defining conceptual art statement by formally changing his name and morphing into the art construct, BILLY APPLE on November 22nd 1962, American Independence Day.
Fascinated by the consumer driven nature of American culture, Apple moved to NYC in 1964, producing pop-related paintings and objects before developing a body of neon sculptures, showing at various venues including the Bianchini Gallery, Howard Wise Gallery and the Pepsi Cola Gallery. Of note was the group exhibition American Supermarket where Billy Apple exhibited alongside Claes Oldenbutg, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Bob Watts and James Rosenquist. By 1969 Apple had shifted to a more conceptual and process-oriented practice. To create a venue for his work he established Apple, a not-for-profit space at 161 West 23rd Street which he operated between October 1969 and May 1973. A major survey of Apple’s work, which brought together his pop and conceptual works from 1960 to 1974, was staged at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1974.
He exhibited regularly at various venues in New York’s alternative art scene including 3 Mercer Street, Holly Solomon and the Clocktower, and for one year was director of 112 Greene Street Gallery (1975-76). Apple remained in New York until 1991, continuing to exhibit his work in various venues, including Leo Castelli Gallery (in 1977, 1978, 1980, and 1984). He also made two extended tours to New Zealand in 1975 and 1979-80, producing a string of site-specific installations in dealer and public galleries throughout the country.
Since the early 1980s, Apple has complemented his installation practice with text-based works that draw attention to the art system and highlight the network of relations that operate between artist, dealer, and collector. A survey of these, As Good as Gold: Billy Apple Art Transactions 1981-1991, was organised and toured by Wellington City Art Gallery in 1991. He became a registered trademark in 2007 to formalise his art brand status and continued to develop projects that addressed this premise, for example working with apple growers over the production and branding of a new apple cultivar and a collaborative art/science project, The Immortalisation of Billy Apple®, in which cells from his blood have been virally transformed to create a cell line that will live outside the body for use in studies like cancer research.
Returning to New Zealand in 1990, Billy Apple exhibited regularly in dealer, public and artist-run galleries throughout New Zealand and in Australia, and his works have been included in major international and national touring exhibitions. These include: Toi Toi Toi: Three Generations of New Zealand Artists (Kassel & Auckland, 1999); Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin (New York, 1999); Kronos + Kairos: die Zeit in der Zeitgenössischen Kunst, (Kassel, 1999); Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture (Frankfurt & Liverpool, 2002-3); American Supermarket (Pittsburgh, 2002), and Art of the ’60s from Tate Britain (Auckland, 2006).
In 2009 a second major survey exhibition of Apple’s work was staged in two parts at Witte de With, Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam (Billy Apple®: A History of the Brand and Revealed/Concealed). In New Zealand aspects of his career have been reevaluated in exhibitions such as Billy Apple: New York 1969-1973 (Wellington 2009) and Billy Apple® The Artist Has To Live Like Everybody Else, Auckland Art Gallery, Toi O Tāmaki, 2015. Billy Apple died in Auckland on September 6, 2021.