Billy Apple®

In May the Contemporary Benefactors spent a special evening with Billy Apple® and Wellington curator Christina Barton. Barton has had a long professional association with Apple and was the driving force behind bringing the largest retrospective of Apple’s work, The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else, to the Auckland Art Gallery.

Christina Barton talks the Contemporary Benefactors through the Billy Apple® show at the AAG May 2015

Billy Apple® was born Barrie Bates in Auckland, New Zealand in 1935. Having left school with no qualifications, he took a job as an assistant to a paint manufacturer while attending evening classes in graphic design at the Elam School of Fine Arts. In 1959 he left New Zealand on a National Art Gallery scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in London alongside artists such as David Hockney, Allen Jones and Derek Boshier. Collectively, they would go on to spearhead the emergence of British Pop Art.

The turning point in Apple’s career came after he graduated in 1962 when he invented Billy Apple®, changing himself into a brand and an artwork. There was no turning back after this point; he altered his look by bleaching his hair, trained himself not to respond if people referred to him as Barrie and refused to contact his family. Apple says “I suppose it’s like coming out, it gave me freedom, I was my own subject matter. It was a brand new thing”

self portrait apple
Billy Apple® Self Portrait 1963
gold apples
Billy Apple® Bronze Apples

A pivotal event for Apple was the 1964 exhibition The American Supermarket, a show held in Paul Bianchini’s Upper East Side gallery. The show was presented as a typical, small supermarket environment but with the products created by prominent pop artists, including: Billy Apple®, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselmann, Jasper Johns, Mary Inman, James Rosenquist and Robert Watts.


Billy Apple® “The American Supermarket” 1964

In her talk Barton noted that “at art school Billy took a hands off approach to making art”. He gave away his camera, stopped drawing and painting and instead used specialised photographers, printers and typographers. It was very much like working as a creative director in the advertising world. As Apple says “I didn’t want to spend 10 years learning how to mould a peeled banana. There were people around who were fantastic at doing that.”

Apple also treated his clients as collaborators. Requiring them to enter into the process of creating the artwork while at the same time broadening the definition of art. For Apple, art was not about making objects, it was about generating ideas. “I was interested in ideas, the relationship between text and image, picture and headline. Advertising had a language that art didn’t have at the time, which gave it a structure” says Apple.

neon apple

In 1975 Apple returned to New Zealand for the first time in sixteen years. At his exhibition Art for Sale at Peter Webb gallery in 1980 he exhibited a series of paintings that were in effect receipts as payment to the artist. This was followed by a series called Transactions. The law firm Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, for example, has a number of canvases in the company collection stating the amount of credit extended to Apple over the years.


Billy Apple® “Art For sale” at Peter Webb Gallery 1980

In 2008 Apple was approached by the scientist, Craig Hilton, to create a project titled The Immortilisation of Billy Apple®, in which cells taken from Apple’s blood were scientifically altered using a virus to cause them to continue regenerating indefinitely. These are cells used for cancer and immunology research. The new cells are now available to other artists who may want to make them into art work (although Apple did point out that it would depend on what they wanted to use them for!). The modified cells are held at both The University of Auckland School of Biological Sciences and in the United States at the ATCC Global Bioresource Centre. This is the first time an artwork has been stored in such a way. Some of the cells are on show in an incubator in the Auckland Art Gallery exhibition.

In conjunction with Saatchi and Saatchi, Apple continues to extend his product range and has a special Apple cider and a Billy Apple® coffee blend.

cider apple
Billy Apple® cider

Even at 80 years of age Apple is still working on new ideas. In an interview with the art critic Anthony Bryt he commented ”I’m living in a 79 year-old body, and it’s hard. The mind’s quicker than the body. But the comforting thing is that, with the cells out there, there isn’t really an end for me. There is no final date. Can you name any other artist In the world who’s done that? Nobody”.

Billy Apple
Billy Apple®

With around 200 works, this is one of the largest survey exhibitions of an artist that has been shown at the Auckland Art Gallery.

For more information on Billy Apple® go to

Interview with Christina Barton

For the interview with Anthony Byrt

NZ Herald Interview with Greg Dixon

5 thoughts on “Billy Apple®”

  1. Ok so it’s only taken me a year but after your tech talk thro yesterday Sue I’m all signed up! Enjoying your blogs….thank you. Lisa

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