Billy Apple New York 1969–1973

This review of Billy Apple's exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery, Billy Apple New York 1969–1973 was first published in Eyeline magazine.

Billy Apple confounds genre. I’d like to say he is a conceptual artist. Or a pop artist. A pop-conceptualist? A performance artist? Perhaps his works are institutional critique? Working during epoch-defining moments of pop and conceptual art Apple can be read through all these modes of practice, but cannot be fully articulated within them.

Partly to manage this multiplicity, curator Christina Barton’s recent exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery, Billy Apple New York 1969 – 1973 concentrates on a relatively brief slice of Apple’s career. We are dealing with specifics here. Apple left New Zealand in 1959 when he moved to London to study design at the Royal College of Art. In 1964 he relocated to New York where he operated one of the first artist run spaces in the city, his own not-for-profit gallery, simply entitled ‘Apple’. In this space he executed numerous works, many of which remain only as slides or small collections of debris. Their re-presentation at the Adam not only exhibits Apple’s work from this little-known period, but also highlights the complexities of the curation and exhibition of conceptual or performance practice, a prevalent concern as galleries the world over continue to explore the legacy of the 1960s and 70s.

The bulk of the exhibition is made up of re-printed photographs and slides of Apple’s everyday activities: cleaning windows, painting the floor, sweeping the courtyard, collecting glass, piling and sifting dirt and removing varnish from floorboards. These prosaic actions have been documented by the artist as art works which incrementally negotiate the boundary between art and life and evidence the artist’s increasing consciousness of his own body as vehicle and site of experimentation.

Also exhibited are stacks of dirty tissues and cotton buds coated in all manner of the artist’s bodily fluids. The lineage of these works can be traced back to 1961, in London, when the artist changed his name from Barrie Bates to Billy Apple; commencing an ongoing project to dissolve the line between his “life activity” and his “art activity”. These recorded biological functions (swabbed and wiped over a pre-determined period of time) attest to Apple’s persistent ontological enquiry into the value of everyday activity and its potential to be read as art. 

In addition to the slides, fluids and photographs, there are several video works, one of which, ‘Card reading, 20 January 1972’, shows Apple visiting a fortune-teller who reads his future. “Nothing dramatic will occur,” she tells Apple, “but everything is in a state of flux, everything changes.” This comment can be equally applied the work in the show, which demonstrates that Apple isn’t interested in generating an event, there is no climax in his work, but rather an ongoing, process-oriented exploration of matter and its multifarious potential.

The laws of thermodynamics state that energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only shifted from one state to another. The same amount of energy present at the creation of the universe exists today. Apple’s examination of the physical world explores a mundane thermodynamics; much of the work in the show documents the artist shifting matter from one state to another – cleaning, collecting, ordering, sweeping, wiping, painting. Apple’s activities exemplify not the dissolution of the object, often cited as conceptualism’s aim, but rather its unlimited potential to be shifted through states and put to use in multiple ways.

This reading of Apple’s work – the mutability of the physical – is complicated by the startling presence of the neon tube installation laid out like a fluorescent rainbow on the floor of the Adam’s lower gallery. Humming softly, and visible only from the mezzanine, this is accompanied by the video work, ‘Neon transformation: an inventory, 23 January-14 February 1972’, showing Apple and colleagues undertaking a detailed inventory of the same tubes before destroying some of them. Another inventory took place before this installation at the Adam Art Gallery, labour made obvious by the scattered craft knives, boxes and wiring, left where they fell when the install team got up and left. The detritus of activity that surrounds the tubes suggests these objects too, regardless of their smooth technological surfaces, are in transition, never truly static but always in the process of changing hands or changing states.

Much has been made in the mainstream media of Apple’s association with famous international artists. He studied with David Hockney and hung out with Sol LeWitt; exhibited with Andy Warhol and at the genre-defining Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. It is true that Apple has had a fair amount of international exposure for an artist from New Zealand. Indeed, this show at the Adam Art Gallery will be closely followed by a major exhibition of Apple’s works, structured in two parts, at the Witte de With in Rotterdam. Curators Zoë Gray and Nicolaus Schafhausen have paired two trajectories in Apple’s work – his detailed examinations and subsequent ‘improvements’ of gallery spaces and his ongoing project of self-branding , which foregrounds the conflation of art and commerce. The consecutive staging of the show at the Adam Art Gallery and this two-pronged exhibition in Rotterdam demonstrates not only the conceptual scope but also the sheer quantity of Apple’s tireless output.

The reductive feel-good story of local boy made good can quickly be revealed as hollow if the work itself doesn’t hold up. Billy Apple New York 1969-1973, though tightly framed, highlights the expansive aspirations of Apple’s persistent probing of art and life. These little-known works are shown to be relevant, adroit and nothing if not thorough.

Thomasin Sleigh