Billy Apple – A Brand Looking For A Product, MTG Hawke's Bay. Image courtesy of author.

Billy Apple®—A Brand Looking For A Product

MTG Hawke’s Bay

Tai Ahuriri

26 September 2020–

21 March 2021


Billy Apple—A Brand Looking For A Product 1962–2020 was co-curated by Adam Art Gallery Director, Christina Barton, alongside the artist himself. You may recognise Barton’s name as one which has become synonymous with Apple, being a consummate encyclopedia of Apple’s oeuvre herself. The exhibition coincided with the publication of Barton’s tome-like Billy Apple® Life/Work (2020); an in-depth archive of Apple’s life and practice. Barton also curated Apple’s 2015 retrospective, The Artist Has To Live Like Everybody Else, which occupied an entire floor at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. In contrast to that major undertaking, the exhibition at MTG feels concise and exacting. 


An alcove right outside of one of the main galleries at MTG is dedicated to one of Apple’s moving image works, Billy’s Apple and Friends (1963), a film documenting Apple placing his ‘cast bronze sculptures amidst the actual vegetable and fruit stalls at Fulham market’. This, and the two offset lithographs that flank it set up the premise of the exhibition: ‘how Billy Apple has developed a visual language and a way of working that speaks to his long-held ambition to bring art and life together'.


Billy Apple – A Brand Looking For A Product, MTG Hawke's Bay. Image courtesy of author.

Barton and Apple have carefully and chronologically walked us through a selection of Apple’s historical works in order to contextualise his visual language. This, I feel, was done incredibly generously. From Billy’s Apple and Friends catching you before entering the exhibition, straight into the moment of immaculate conception for Billy Apple in 1962, with the iconic work Billy Apple Bleaching with Lady Clairol Instant Crème Whip, November 1962 (1962/2004). These works lay the foundations of Apple’s methodology and practice. 


The exhibition touches on pertinent moments within Apple’s career that draw attention to the process of the artist becoming the product. In particular, Apples 2 for 25 cents (1962-64), is a printed canvas with an old-fashioned supermarket price tag slider affixed. What’s for sale? Billy Apple. Barton writes that when this work was re-presented in the Bianchini Gallery’s American Supermarket exhibition in 1964, Apple changed the currency from British shillings to American currency—retaining the centrality of a commercial transaction. 


One work by Apple that never fails to entertain is Apple Turns to Gold (1983), documenting the original Golden Apple (1983) he cast using 103.559 ounces of gold in the 1980s for gold merchant Ray Smith. This work only endures as documentation because sometime after Apple’s retrospective in 2015, the then owner of the gold apple melted it down which, as Barton highlights, failed ‘to recognise that the original 1983 art work … was worth more than the price the bullion would have reached on the open market'.


Billy Apple – A Brand Looking For A Product, MTG Hawke's Bay. Image courtesy of author.

The exhibition continues and finishes on the more recent project of Apple selling his own brand of Billy Apple® Cider, with the no longer commercially available alcoholic beverage on display. One of Apple’s recent works in the exhibition, End of the Line (2018), summarises the trajectory of the project around to match that of his own career: 


In 1964 Billy Apple was one of the Pop artists who took the supermarket into the art gallery in a NY exhibition called American Supermarket. We launched Billy Apple Cider in 2014 and took the art gallery into the supermarket.   


What worked well in A Brand Looking For A Product was that a framework was established by the curators to ensure that the audience was able to interpret one of the central themes of the show: ‘to remind local audiences that Hawke's Bay was a base for one of Billy Apple's most ambitious projects’ involving the apple. By establishing Apple as the product, the curators were able to pivot to his efforts to trademark his own apple/Apple—the T147 cultivar, developed with Havelock North’s research orchards. 


This endeavour is documented in the exhibition with a photograph by Mary Morrison, Billy Apple and Allan White in conversation, Plant & Food Research Orchard, Havelock North (2003), which shows the early stages of Apple’s foray into trademarking his apple cultivar. After being given the choice of several varieties by White, Apple selected the T147 because it ‘looked good and tasted even better’. As Morrison explains, ‘the idea that [Apple] could “exploit business to produce ... multiples on a global scale,” putting art into the supermarket, as a counter-gesture to pop art's original expropriation of everyday produce from the supermarket’ was the real thrill of the project'. Despite this, the T147 Apple ultimately failed the ‘rigorous standards required for commercialisation’, but the project still lives on in several iterations throughout the exhibition. 


Billy Apple – A Brand Looking For A Product, MTG Hawke's Bay. Image courtesy of author.

This exhibition succeeded in its attention to a specific audience and the space. By keeping the overall number of works to a minimum, no work felt unnecessarily included. It also felt like a conscious effort to lure visitors into the Billy Apple universe under the guise of the apple industry in the region. But with no labels on the gallery walls, you were reliant on the undersized A5 exhibition catalogue to decode Apple’s works. While this catalogue was informative and written in plain language, it was labour-intensive to read 22 extended object labels in size 8 font while cross checking with a map of the gallery in the booklet. Without reading the catalogue, the works were only accessible on an aesthetic level. 


Billy Apple®A Brand Looking For A Product 1962-2020 demonstrated the dexterity of Barton and Apple as curators to deliver a small-scale exhibition that encapsulates Apple's ongoing dialogue between art and life—from Apple first bringing the supermarket into the context of the gallery, to him taking his art practice to the supermarket in the form of Billy Apple cider. His ambition to create the Billy Apple apple (T147) was an effort, as the exhibition’s title suggests, to find a product for his brand—but its failure was still a success in that it exemplifies the way Apple’s practice operates to extend Billy Apple as a brand, rather than a person, in perpetuity.