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Billy Apple Life/Work by Christina Barton

Billy Apple Life/Work by Christina Barton is a richly illustrated biography of Billy Apple, arguably New Zealand’s most internationally significant living artist. It is a fascinating account of an extraordinary life.

On the afternoon of November 2, 1962, twenty-four-year-old Barry Bates from Auckland, who had been studying graphic design at the Royal College of Art in London, bleached his hair and eyebrows with Lady Clairol Instant Creme Whip, renamed himself Billy Apple and became a living brand.

This metamorphosis was not a mischievous impulsive act, it was a calculated move to turn his back permanently on his previous life and make a new start, cutting off all contact with his family back home.

When he moved to New York two years later in 1964, he relished immersing himself in its vibrant Pop art scene. He was invited to exhibit alongside leading artists such as Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. He built an international reputation, first as a Pop artist in the 60s and later as a Conceptual artist. And he established one of the first alternative art spaces in New York.

In the eighties, when air travel became cheaper, his visits to New Zealand became more frequent and finding there were opportunities here (and the cost of living had gone up substantially in New York) he moved back permanently in 1990. Aware of his own importance he has kept and stored every minutia of his work in a large warehouse in Auckland to which Christina Barton has had unlimited access. It provided her with a rich repository to draw on and formed an important part of her research for Billy Apple Life/Work which has taken a decade to write.

In her biography she vividly brings Billy Apple and the New York pop art world to life. He was fearless in his exploration of new technologies, ranging from film and photography to neon and laser lighting. The ideas were his, but he would outsource the making of these artworks to others. She shares his successes but there were also setbacks. When money was short, he worked for some of New York’s top advertising agencies for whom he created award winning work.

Christina Barton covers two tours Billy Apple made around New Zealand in 1975 and 1979 where his site-based alterations and subtractions evoked public outrage, especially at the time of his first visit. Not surprising really, as these were radical and challenging and far removed from art that had been seen here before.

She describes the crucial role art critic and academic Wyston Curnow, who had recently studied in the United States and was familiar with what was happening in the International art, played in promoting and defending Billy Apple.

I viewed Billy Apple’s extensive retrospective exhibition ‘The Artist Has to Live Like Everyone Else,’ at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki in 2015. It was wide ranging, artfully displayed and superbly curated by Christina Barton, but I found his self-obsession and the blurring of art and commerce in his work unappealing. I could not warm to Billy Apple, he failed to touch my heart. And I thought his quest for ‘The Immortalization of Billy Apple” (for which his cells have been virtually transformed at the school of biological sciences so his brand (and person) can live forever was somewhat bizarre. Future generations will already have access to his works which are in the permanent collection of major art institutions including the Tate and the Philadelphia Museum of Modern art. Why ask for more?

But reading Christina Barton’s thought-provoking biography has been a healthy antidote to my negativity which has allowed me to better appreciate his pioneering spirit, how varied and highly original his artmaking practice was and the complexity of his thinking. These have rightly earnt him a significant place in the history of art.

Auckland University Press

Reviewer: Lyn Potter


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