Book of the Week: Billy bloody Apple

Andrew Paul Wood on a new study of the one and only Billy Apple - pop artist, successful brand, mythological New Zealander

Billy Apple is an acquired passion. It’s not a passion I’ve ever fully embraced, but he’s ours, he was one of the first in the field of conceptual art, and he’s still doing it, whether it’s parking an M8A-2 Chevrolet in an art gallery or having a line of stem cells cloned from his DNA as if Jurassic Park taught us nothing.

Part of Apple’s appeal is the sheer scale of the mythology. Barrie Bates goes to London to study graphic design at the RCA, meets David Hockney, the two close friends bleach their hair and head to America. Somewhere along the way Pop Art is invented and Barrie transmogrifies into Billy Apple.

But then Apple does something interesting. He takes the innate commodity fetishism of Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, and dematerialises it into something conceptual, ironic and completely self-aware – this when Jeff Koons is still literally in short pants. Apple’s epiphany was realising that the need to make art wasn’t all that important when he could be art. He became a brand, and for similar reasons that Steve Jobs would do so a decade later, he chose “Apple”.


The art critic Robert Hughes describes cultural cringe as “the reflex of the kid with low self-esteem hoping that his work will please the implacable father, but secretly despairing that it can,” and “the tyranny of the unseen masterpiece”. Unlike Hockney, however, Apple wasn’t much interested in engaging with the masterpieces of the past either. He liked technology, fast cars, mass communication and typography.

From the cover of Anthony Byrt’s study The Mirror Steamed Over, you might think this was just about Apple and Hockney in London in 1962, but Byrt casts the net a lot wider than that, back to the first defining exhibitions of the British Young Contemporaries and Young Commonwealth Artists where Apple showed with fellow New Zealander Bill Culbert. Culbert was finishing at the RCA as Apple was starting and only gets a glancing mention, but surely there must have been more to say about it even if only that they didn’t move in the same circles?

There’s something really touching about the unaffected, Platonic closeness between the heterosexual Apple and the homosexual Hockney. In the book there’s a picture of them together at Coney Island. They’re wearing complementary novelty badges – Hockney’s says “I like boys” and Apple’s says “I like girls”. The closeness largely peters out in New York. The paths diverge. Hockney went off to LA to meet boys and paint swimming pools while Apple became a modest success in advertising on Madison Avenue.

Apple and Hockney remain in touch to this day. There are three central characters to this story, however. The face missing from the cover is Ann Quin, Apple’s occasional lover, friend, and an experimental novelist only now getting the attention she is due. Byrt’s title is lifted from her first novel Berg, a surreal Oedipal farce published in 1964 and adapted as the film Killing Dad with Denholm Elliott and Richard E. Grant in 1989.

Quin published three other novels, Three, Passages, and the last, Tripticks in 1972. An anthology, The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments came out in 2018 and is well worth tracking down. She drowned herself at Brighton the following year, aged 37. Quin met Apple when he was still a student at the RCA and supposedly, she ghost-wrote his dissertation, “Pop Corn” on Vincent van Gogh. As Byrt notes, triangular relationships were a theme Berg explored more than once in her novels. Did she and Hockney take turns as the spare wheel?

David Hockney and Barrie Bates in Cornwall, October 1961. Photo: Ron Fuller.

The Mirror Steamed Over also serves up a pungent cross-section of 1960s New York in full swing. Money and culture were being made in epic amounts. You get the impression that Apple was ever so slightly resentful of Hockney’s art world success, resentful of the ubiquitous dominance of Abstract Expressionism, resentful of having to work as a commercial artist. And then that pivotal New York moment in October 1964, Ben Birillo’s exhibition The American Supermarket at the Bianchini Gallery. American Pop Art arrived in an installation set up like an actual supermarket by Richard Artschwager. Barrie Bates died, and Billy Apple was born, on show with Warhol, Oldenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann, among others.

There is a short list of New Zealand artists that successfully write themselves into northern hemisphere art history like that; Frances Hodgkins, Len Lye, and Billy Apple. That’s not to say Apple wasn’t a public figure back in New Zealand. It was celebrity of a distinctly adversarial kind though, not much different to the provincial and smugly philistine bullshit et al had to endure from Paul Holmes in 2005.

Wystan Curnow wrote of an Apple visit home in 1976: “In some four months, over forty news items appeared in daily papers from Auckland to Invercargill, the Sunday press, the Listener, and the National Business Review also took note. He figured on local and network television some seven times, was interviewed by all Wellington’s radio stations, some of them twice. Much of this attention was to some degree hostile, for, in the 'public mind' his was controversial art.”

Tall poppies and all that, further complicated by being too obvious and too cerebral all at the same time. Apple returned to New Zealand permanently in 1990 and is a sort of conceptual godfather to the careers of the likes of Simon Denny and Dane Mitchell. He showed it could be done, even if today he seems a curiously atavistic coelacanth among all the post-internet-this and relational-aesthetics-that of the kids these days.

Apple’s brashness, bluntness and flamboyance are still of that trans-Atlantic 1960s, just on a massively bigger budget. For me, I dunno – the early work had plenty of chutzpah, but the branding thing seems a liability today when people don’t have much time for modernist artist-heroes. The Zeitgeist is one of understanding social patterns and creating nuanced communal experiences in a way the Apple brand doesn’t seem overly interested in. I still enjoy his cocky geometric interventions in the layout of gallery spaces and golden ratio-derived streetscape artworks, but the late work seems more about “how expensive can I make this?” and “what will they let me away with?”

Billy Apple, exhibition poster for ‘The Ring’ at Bilston Art Gallery, 1960 (made while still Barrie Bates).

Byrt occasionally disappears down some unnecessary rabbit holes. There’s a bunch of padding about Larry Rivers that could have been trimmed down. After all, the audience for The Mirror Steamed Over will likely be familiar enough with the big names already. We came for Billy, and thought we came for David but then discovered we were really more interested in Ann.

There’s a bit too much speculative monologue from Byrt in places, the odd wince-worthy rhetorical flourish (but let they who have not sinned cast the first stone etcetera). I think Byrt overeggs the centrality of Hockney and Apple to the cultural paradigm shift of the 1960s.

He writes in the prologue, “Beyond the surface effects and pop potentials of mass consumerism, both [Hockney] and Bates intuited a much larger cultural revolution underway, namely, that the liberated individual, acting in his or her self-interest – sexually, creatively, politically, economically – was becoming the new unit around which British and American society would be organised.” I’m inclined to suggest, sure, but wasn’t everybody? Isn’t that the defining feature of the boomers? Was it really that intellectual, or were they just enjoying what Philip Larkin put more succinctly, “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three”?

And when Byrt suggests the solid gold apple Apple made in 1983 is a kind of precursor to Damien Hirst’s 2007 diamond-encrusted skull, my eye-rolling becomes audible. It’s a stretch. Hirst was tapping into the tradition of the memento mori, pre-Columbian Mesoamerican crystal skulls. Maurizio Cattelan’s 2016 gold toilet America (now missing) might be more to the point, and even then, nothing out of place in your average oil sheik’s broom cupboard. Sometimes it’s just not that deep, and with Apple it rarely is. He didn’t invent extravagant artifice for the sake of it.

These are minor cavils, however. What Byrt has done exceptionally well is sniff out the parameters of an important period in both the development of Apple and in art history as a whole. The marrow is extracted from what could have been a very fatty lamb roast. Could the book have been shorter and still worked? Probably, but it’s still a delightful and informative read.

Apple, charmer, egoist, meanwhile continues to see what the institutions will let him get away with and with more gusto than many a fraction of his age. Long may he do so, and thanks to Byrt I may yet be converted to the cult.

The Mirror Steamed Over: Love and Pop in London, 1962 by Anthony Byrt (Auckland University Press, $45) is available in bookstores nationwide.

*ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand*


Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners