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Artist Billy Apple interviewed by Sarah Farrar

<P data-associrn="277987"></P> <P>Billy Apple has been a leading figure in contemporary art since the 1960s, when he emerged as part of the international pop art scene and changed his identity by rebranding himself as an art work. For over 50 years he has challenged and delighted gallery visitors with his provocative conceptual art works.</P> <P>In March 2015 a major retrospective of Billy Apple’s works, <EM>The Artist Has To Live Like Everybody Else</EM>, opened at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. The works on display included several works on loan from Te Papa, which were recently in Te Papa’s <EM>Framing the Museum</EM> exhibition. </P> <P>Curator Sarah Farrar talked to the artist about his works in the national art collection.</P> <P><STRONG>Sarah</STRONG>: Billy, I’d like to start by asking you about a project that you did in 1979 at the National Art Gallery (the forerunner to Te Papa) called <EM>Exposé</EM>. Can you tell me how that project came about?</P> <P data-associrn="1482532"></P><P data-associrn="1482533"></P> <P><STRONG>Billy</STRONG>: I was visiting from New York and was on a national tour organised by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand. It was the second time, actually. The first time was a national tour in ’75. It was a bit like a roadshow for a pop group. They don’t do that sort of thing today. We found ourselves on a tour to about half a dozen different public galleries, and the first stop was the Govett-Brewster [in New Plymouth]. The director was a man called Dick Bett, who was very good. The work we did there [<EM>Alterations</EM>] was to alter the staircase in the gallery, a move which was very politically charged, with the city council for and against and things, but it all got done in the end. It’s being upgraded at the moment – so here I am back working on a 1979/80 work in 2014/15.</P> <P data-associrn="1482534"></P> <P>The next stop was the Sarjeant Gallery [in Whanganui]. Dick had told me about <EM>The wrestlers</EM> in the middle of the building, meaning the Greek-type sculpture right under the big dome. No matter where you walked, <EM>The wrestlers</EM> was in your eyesight. If you went to the extreme ends, left and right, the thing was there. So the work I proposed to them [<EM>Towards the centre</EM>] was that <EM>The wrestlers</EM> had to go. And, again, everybody was nervous. </P> <P>We had difficulty moving it, it was extremely heavy, approx 1.66 tonnes, and they had to lay down special things on the floor to remove it. When it was all over, <EM>The wrestlers</EM> was taken to a little side room as you come in the gallery, which seemed appropriate at that point to let it have its own life in this little gallery.</P> <P data-associrn="37489"></P> <P>The third project [<EM>Exposé</EM>] was the two massive Frank Brangwyn paintings [<EM>Mediterranean market</EM>, 1916, and <EM>The card players: agricultural workers at rest</EM>, 1916–17] that had been on the wall either side of the first floor foyer that was the entrance to the old National Art Gallery – I mean, really big. So the proposal there was to remove the Brangwyns – a change of vision, put it that way. There was nothing wrong with them; it was just time for something else to go in or leave nothing there. </P> <P>Anyhow, Luit Bieringa was the director at the time, and he was very supportive. Ian Hunter was the curator, and Ian was assigned to remove the works for me. Scaffolding had to be brought in because of the staircase. He had a whole lot of people who had to do community service come and help – bankers and all sorts of people – and they had to help get these things off the wall. But nothing would budge. There was an additional baton attached inside the frame. Much to their surprise, when they removed it, they found out that there were all these screws straight through the canvas and stretcher into the wall, twelve 90mm-long steel screws. A screwdriver wouldn’t move them. They were frozen into the concrete after all these years. So they had no other option but to drill the heads off through the canvas. Then they could carefully pull the painting straight off from the wall. Of the two works, they managed to get one screw that came out in one piece, which I immediately pounced on as evidence. </P> <P>But when it came off the wall, there were these two amazing minimal shapes where they’d painted around the works for years, and here was this different colour underneath, like a modernist painting, with these spikes all around sticking out looking at you. It was incredible. But anyhow, that wasn’t our focus – but they did leave the spikes there from memory. The next thing, once they had got both off the wall, was to take them into the room behind, which was made totally empty. I said: ‘I’d like you to place them leaning up against the wall on little felt pads,’ – to respect them so they wouldn’t be directly on the floor – ‘in exactly the same position where they were, left and right, on the wall outside.’&nbsp; </P> <P>The National Library’s conservator, Jeavons Baillie, and a conservator from the Auckland Art Gallery who came down, had a look at the works with these big holes all the way through. Jeavons took a piece of chalk and wrote on the floor in front of them a list of what was wrong – it was quite an amazing event – that and leaving the spikes on the outside wall. So it’s a hell of a work, really. Then they set about to organise to restore the two works. I think they restored them publicly, so that people could see what the process of restoration was about, et cetera. </P> <P><STRONG>Sarah</STRONG>: One of those Brangwyn paintings, <EM>Mediterranean market</EM>, was recently on display in its fully restored state in the <EM>Ng&#257; Toi</EM> | <EM>Arts Te</EM> Papa exhibition <EM>Collecting Modern</EM>.</P> <P>In the case of the Sarjeant Gallery and the National Art Gallery projects, you were removing other artists’ work from display, so that’s one thing I wanted to kind of pick up on, whereas some of the other projects, for example widening the stairs at the Govett-Brewster or the project you did for Peter McLeavey Gallery, it was more about alterations to the physical site. </P> <P><STRONG>Billy</STRONG>: Yes, you are right. There are different aspects. </P> <P>If I can quickly go back to the Sarjeant Gallery – look, <EM>The wrestlers</EM> was not a major work. In fact it was a 20th-century copy. This Italian sculptor had had a whole lot of apprentices, it was actually just a model made by his students. It had no value. </P> <P><STRONG>Sarah</STRONG>: So with these projects, what were you trying to create? Was it an ideal viewing environment?</P> <P><STRONG>Billy</STRONG>: I think in the case of the Sarjeant Gallery it definitely was. It freed up the dome for other things. Then Bill [Milbank, the director] decided that there’d be an ongoing series where other artists could be commissioned to do works in the dome room. I think it was lovely that the space actually had a new life.</P> <P><STRONG>Sarah</STRONG>: If we talk now about the Peter McLeavey project, <EM>Censure</EM>, which was actually happening at a very similar time to the <EM>Exposé</EM> project at the National Art Gallery. Did Peter approach you and say ‘Billy, I’d like to have an exhibition. What will you do?’ Or did you propose it?</P> <P><STRONG>Billy</STRONG>: I’d already exhibited with Peter. We’d done three or four shows with him in the ‘80s. In fact, for one show [in 1986], I didn’t even turn up. I was in New York; I just sent the works out, and it was called <EM>AC/DC: Artist’s cut / dealer’s cut</EM> – one happens to be in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery collection, the other is in Hong Kong. I had two little canvases, one landscape and the other portrait, golden section, 13 inches by 8 inches, and they were shipped and they hadn’t arrived in time. Peter took a roll of brown paper and covered his end wall, and as you come in the door, this whole wall was brown paper taped to the wall, I guess like wallpaper. He’d taken this pencil and written something like ‘Works have not yet arrived from New York,’. I always said, ‘What did you take it down for, Peter? It was incredible.’ He is a good man. </P> <P data-associrn="1482523"></P> <P>I’d been using alternative art spaces in New York, and, of course, dealer gallery spaces in New York for the most part are pretty sharp – minimal and good floors and clean walls and no detritus anywhere. But I’d seen this space [the Peter McLeavey Gallery] and I’d thought, ‘No, this is not good – we can do better than this.’ He was very committed to his rooms. He once said to me: ‘You know, Billy, I often go up to the walls and kiss them and thank them for what they’ve done.’ It always lingered with me, that phrase. So I thought, ‘Maybe we can help it along a bit.’ </P> <P data-associrn="1482535"></P> <P>If you look at all the photos [refering to the Te Papa works], you can see bits and pieces all over, things left over from another time. He had taken a door out and hadn’t fixed where the hinges were. I found it a bit of an affront, frankly. The space wasn’t up to speed for modernist art in my view, and he rose to the challenge. I said to him: ‘Can you have them painted red? I’d like to paint them red as a critique.’ And when they were done, it looked like a sort of Russian suprematist painting, in location. So he quite liked it. He let it stay there for some time – 142 days, actually. But in the end he painted it out white. </P> <P>Then he wanted something else from me, and I said, ‘Peter, there’s some unfinished business.’ So he came up to Auckland, and Wystan Curnow and I met with him at old Government House in the University of Auckland grounds. Wystan very kindly described to him his other options regarding the critique, which was to restore the space by removing the items. He said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know.’ I said, ‘Yes, you can, Peter. When that’s done, we can get on with things.’ And that’s really what happened. He got a cabinetmaker to come in and carefully remove things, and I said, ‘I’d like the bits, please. Don’t throw them away.’ Because Peter’s like that. He’d have kept them.</P> <P>I remember seeing the building number downstairs, above the door on the street level, and I think it was broken or hanging down, so I went down with a screwdriver and took it off and threw it in the rubbish bin. He followed me and picked it out of the rubbish tin, and I said, ‘No, Peter, I want it. You’re not going to put it back. It’s bloody 147 or whatever it is Cuba Street. It’s broken. It’s had its day.’</P> <P><STRONG>Sarah</STRONG>: So that was 1979, 1980. It was around Easter 1980 when the pieces of the gallery got painted white. And then what about 1982?</P> <P data-associrn="1425108"></P> <P><STRONG>Billy</STRONG>: That’s right. I said to him I’d like to do a work, so there was a second show with him. This is Part 2 of the same work [<EM>Censure: The given as an art-political statement</EM>], where Wystan wrote a basic piece of text, and I used the same text [on each of the works – not thinking that they’d be ever kept as one group of works, as I might not have done that. But the text was written so that it would, I think, explain what it is. Wystan’s line was ‘How come Billy Apple is selling pieces of the Peter McLeavey Gallery?’ I thought it was not too bad a reference to Peter, and he seemed to like that. </P> <P>And, of course, Robert Leonard, who was then the curator at the National Art Gallery, acquired the works. All the red censured works were meant to be purchased, but there’s one that hasn’t come the gallery’s way. I’ve prepared the photograph and text. It’s ready to go. That big ceiling piece was in fact painted bright red – and that’s why there is this wonderful, abstract, suprematist-looking shape on the ceiling, looking very much like a Malevich, I think. But it wasn’t. It didn’t come from that tradition at all. Anyhow, Peter wouldn’t let it go. I said, ‘They paid for it, Peter.’ No, he just wouldn’t let it go. </P> <P>Of course, now it’s made even harder because of the earthquake strengthening of the building. I think there’s a steel bar that goes near it or over it or something like that. But I’ve spoken with Peter’s daughter, who’s running the gallery, and said, ‘Olivia, when the time comes, that should be carefully taken off the ceiling and given to Te Papa.’ </P> <P data-associrn="1502432"></P> <P>That piece would have been framed as an object. The photograph would have been placed in the middle of it with the text, so it was self-contained. It would have been framed so that the five panels sat underneath it with one big one right above it like one great big unit, and that’s still how I think it should be one day. We may have to do a raid there. In the middle of the night, carefully take it down!</P> <P data-associrn="1442192"></P> <P><STRONG>Sarah</STRONG>: I think this is a nice way to lead into the <EM>Art for sale</EM> poster and <EM>Sold</EM>. So, Billy, I’m wondering if you can tell me about this work, which, again, was a work made for a commercial gallery, and how you approached this opportunity.</P> <P><STRONG>Billy</STRONG>: My practice in New York was such that it was fairly ephemeral. When I went to live in New York from London, in August of ’64, I found myself very quickly in shows like the <EM>American Supermarket</EM>, with artists like Warhol and Oldenburg, Lichtenstein. I was pretty young really, considering, and not even American at that point, and here I was in this glam pop show. It would have been the first group show of pop people with someone who came out of that British pop scene.</P> <P><STRONG>Sarah</STRONG>: So you were making more ephemeral work in New York?</P> <P><STRONG>Billy</STRONG>: Yeah. Things were very much for sale there, but then I proceeded to do my very first US dealer show in January of ’65, called <EM>Apples to Xerox</EM>, using the Xerox Corporation’s facilities because it was new technology – those Xerox copy machines really weren’t around yet. They had very posh corporate headquarters in the Rockefeller Center, and they were very nice to me. It was arranged so I could go there. They had this experimental machine that you could put an image in and it would record it, and then you could place something on the bed of this machine – fabric or glass or wood or whatever, steel or aluminium. I chose to use canvas and fabrics. There was a maximum size that I could do – 10 inches by, I think, 15 inches. So I did this show using the Xerox technology to do works. </P> <P>My works were very conceptual, but the Xerox show was actually a concept by the dealer who I was with at the time, Paul Bianchini. He wrote me a letter, saying, ‘We’ve got a great idea called From Apples to Xerox, Billy. You could go and do all these Xerox images from A to Z, or A to X, actually, like B for beetles, and H for this, and all that stuff’ – and I thought, ‘Oh – R for Rembrandt.’ They had me copying Rembrandts of all things. I thought, ‘No, if you copy a Rembrandt, it’s got to be the same size.’ I mean, you can’t just get a magazine and copy a photo; it’s just a miniature of the thing. So I stepped away from that and did works that I wanted to do – red, white, and blue works to do with American presidents. There was a portrait made up of multiple xeroxes using a photo by Richard Avedon of Jack Kennedy. I did works with LBJ [Lyndon B Johnson] and his wife – in fact, there was a wonderful Life magazine cover of them. I think the headline was ‘To a Future Historian’. I thought, ‘Christ, it’s all there – the title and date’s on the cover, that’s it.’ I just copied that in red, white, and blue. I called this whole group of works The Presidential Suite – pretty sensational – and they’re in London now with my dealer, James Mayor and he’s going to take them back to the States. </P> <P>I carried on from there with my thinking, which I had done right from the beginning in 1960, and entered into a whole period of where the idea was paramount and there was not much product. You got by one way or another, and I was being shown. I started an alternative gallery space called APPLE on 161 West 23rd Street and invited all sorts of people to use that, if they were like-minded people, and then eventually from that I gravitated to Leo Castelli Gallery, who represented the likes of Jasper Johns, Warhol, and Laurence Weiner. Again, Leo didn’t mind if I didn’t do works to sell. He was quite happy for me to carry on with my thing. He was like my patron. We did four shows with him. It was incredible. Here was this place where hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of works were sold making him bloody millions, and here I’m still doing works with no intent to sell. </P> <P>And, of course, Peter McLeavey’s work [<EM>Censure</EM>] was a forerunner to one of the shows I did at Leo’s. About 6 months later, I did a show there where I critiqued the Castelli Gallery archive door, which didn’t shut properly – it was also called <EM>Censure</EM>. The other artists in the gallery looked at it: ‘God, Billy’s gone a bit far. You don’t do this sort of stuff.’ But Leo was good about it, and it stayed there for a few shows, but it did come down eventually. One of the guys just painted it out. </P> <P>I’d been doing a number of works leading up to this in New York, looking at faults and mismatched mouldings on base boards and all sorts of things like that and creating works out of those. People let me crawl around their gallery floors and museums. I managed to get from Marcel Breuer the plans for the Whitney Museum for a project I had in mind. Of course, the Whitney rejected the idea, but I’ve still got the letter and the blueprint plans. My unpublished works are now being published, so sort of in a funny way you’re achieving what you wanted to do in a different way. </P> <P>So, I’m not doing works to sell. Peter Webb, who I had known for a while, had a dealer gallery in Auckland. He asked me in late ‘79 could I do something to sell. I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, Peter. I haven’t really thought about it.’ Like, I knew what he meant. He wanted something he could hang on the bloody wall, framed or whatever. I came back to him eventually and said, ‘Look, I’ll do a show that’s called <EM>Art for Sale</EM>, and the work is called <EM>Sold</EM>.’</P> <P data-associrn="37213"></P> <P>I remember I had the artwork done in London. I went there from 6 to 17 November 1980 and had someone do the typography for it. I returned to New York and on the 29th November opened the same work, <EM>Censure: The Given as an Art-Political Statement</EM>, in two different galleries in the same building at the same time – Leo Castelli and Charles Cowles – a double-headed show. That was pretty powerful. Then I flew out to New Zealand, and I was in Auckland from 7 December 1980 to May ’81. <EM>Sold</EM> was painted along with the ten silk-screened works-on-paper. So that’s how I put Peter Webb’s show together. Sold was the second work I had painted by Terry Maitland – the first was the gallery sign for RKS Art, Rodney Kirk Smith’s Auckland gallery. I did a gallery <EM>Alteration</EM> in October of 1979 when it was called the Barry Lett Galleries. Then over the summer of 1981 we did <EM>Made Over</EM> that was a big alteration, the name change and full rebranding, even down to the stationery – all conceived as a work. Then by May 1981, I was back in New York. </P> <P>Look, these works – the <EM>Art Transactions</EM> and the<EM> From the Collections</EM> series – are New York ideas from 1980 but I just couldn’t get any traction for them. I showed Leo [Castelli] the artwork for <EM>I.O.U.</EM> – black words on bright yellow and an announcement for the show – <EM>Billy Apple Wants to Borrow</EM>. He said ‘Billy, we don’t borrow, we sell things’. So I followed up with <EM>Purchased By Mr and Mrs So and So From the Leo Castelli Gallery</EM>, white out of red. It was around that time he called my works ‘pop-conceptual’. That’s why we ended up doing these ideas in Auckland.</P> <P data-associrn="1482536"></P> <P>The concept for the Webb’s exhibition was simply that – SOLD. I said to Peter: ‘You can’t open the show unless it’s sold. You can open it only when you’ve sold everything out.’ So I put it back on him. And he did; he had it all sold. So it opened on a Sunday afternoon with guaranteed sales in it – a sell-out show, as they say. It was pretty spectacular. There were 10 of these [<EM>Sold</EM> works on paper] silk-screens on the wall – two rows of five at one end of this rather smart space in Elliott Street, which was also a lovely old building – beautiful staircase – right behind Smith and Caughey’s. It was an old insurance building. At one end of the space were these two rows of five works-on-paper, and at the other end there was a very large canvas, <EM>Sold</EM>, and that had sold as well. Peter had put a group together to buy it called the ‘Future Group’. I think it was a businessman, Tony Petrie, who thought that up. It was $3,000 for the painting with 10 people in at $300 each. Now the Future Group is done and dusted, as they say, and Sold’s just been resold through an auction house for around $60,000. That’s a 2,000% increase on their original investment. Not bad!</P> <P><EM>This interview is an edited transcript of an artist talk by Billy Apple with Sarah Farrar that took place in October 2014 at Te Papa. </EM></P> <P><BR>&nbsp;</P>

National Art Gallery, and Billy Apple, Exposé: The given as an art-political statement, 1979
Full object info is available on


Billy Apple, Art for sale, 1981,
Found in collection, 2016.
Full object info is available on


Sir Frank Brangwyn, Mediterranean market, 1916, oil on canvas,
Purchased 1951.
© Estate of Frank Brangwyn. All Rights Reserved 2006 / Bridgeman Images
Full object info is available on

Billy Apple, &lt;EM&gt;Alterations: The given as an art-political statement&lt;/EM&gt;, 1979, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Billy Apple, Alterations: The given as an art-political statement, 1979, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Billy Apple, &lt;EM&gt;The given as an art-political statement: Alterations (completed 20 February, 1980)&lt;/EM&gt;, 1980, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Billy Apple, The given as an art-political statement: Alterations (completed 20 February, 1980), 1980, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Billy Apple, &lt;EM&gt;Towards the centre: The given as an art-political statement&lt;/EM&gt;, 1979, commercially printed poster, signed by the artist

Billy Apple, Towards the centre: The given as an art-political statement, 1979, commercially printed poster, signed by the artist ,
Collection of the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui. Purchased with a subsidy from the Q.E.II Arts Council

Billy Apple, &lt;EM&gt;AC/DC&lt;/EM&gt;, 1986, Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Billy Apple, AC/DC, 1986, Dunedin Public Art Gallery ,
Photograph courtesy Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

Billy Apple, &lt;EM&gt;Censure: The given as an art-political statement&lt;/EM&gt; (detail), 1979, Peter McLeavey Gallery

Billy Apple, Censure: The given as an art-political statement (detail), 1979, Peter McLeavey Gallery ,
Photograph courtesy of the Billy Apple ®Archive


Billy Apple, Censure: The given as an art-political statement, 1979/82, printed paper, wood, metal and paint,
Purchased 1989 with Ellen Eames Collection funds.
Full object info is available on

1989-0041-1/A-E to E-E; &lt;EM&gt;Censure: The given as an art-political statement&lt;/EM&gt;; 1979/82; Apple, Billy

1989-0041-1/A-E to E-E; Censure: The given as an art-political statement; 1979/82; Apple, Billy


Billy Apple, Sold, 1981, screenprint inscribed in pencil,
Purchased 1981.
Full object info is available on

Peter Webb signing a &lt;EM&gt;Sold&lt;/EM&gt; work by Billy Apple at the opening of &lt;EM&gt;Art for Sale&lt;/EM&gt;, 1981, Peter Webb Gallery

Peter Webb signing a Sold work by Billy Apple at the opening of Art for Sale, 1981, Peter Webb Gallery