Billy Apple has the distinction to be a leading figure in two international art movements. First, in London, he was part of Britain’s pop generation in the early 1960s. In 1964, having changed name from Barrie Bates to Billy Apple he presented the first solo pop art exhibition in the UK. Second, moving permanently to New York in the same year, Apple became the bridge between the British and American pop art movements. Here, he exhibited alongside other great names of American pop art – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Richard Artschwager, Robert Watts, Claes Oldenburg and Tom Wesselman – most noticeably in the pivotal pop art exhibit The American Supermarket, held in Paul Bianchini's Upper East Side gallery. This was a ground-breaking installation where art objects mimicking everyday commodities were presented using the display techniques of the modern supermarket.
Untitled (1965) dates from these innovative years and featured in the artist’s second solo New York show, Neon Rainbows, also at Bianchini. Mary Morrison has described how rainbows in neon, translucent acrylic and serigraphs on paper were exhibited in the gallery’s large internal space in a smart high rise on West 57th St. With no outside windows the only light in the space was produced by the neon rainbows installed on the floor. The additive effect of the neon rainbow colours produced a beautiful bright white light, which if refracted separated back into a rainbow spectrum – with the result that all the shadows in the gallery were rainbows.
The exhibition was a hit in New York – pictures from the show featuring in Time and Life magazine. Billy Apple had been the first of the pop artists to work with neon; and Robert Pincus-Witten writing in Artforum (February 1966) said that ‘Billy Apple’s rainbows are among the most beautiful that hover over the present scene.’ Components of the show were curated into exhibitions at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Ileana Sonnabend Gallery, Paris, the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven and most recently the Darren Knight Gallery in Sydney.
Billy Apple’s Untitled (1965) is rare and unique. It is an art work that captures the spirit of exuberance and challenge that marked the pop era. Equally it is a reminder of the way this now senior artist has perpetually rejuvenated his career, and brought fresh experiences to five decades of audiences from London and New York to Auckland, through precise and thoughtful interventions in the zeitgeist of the day.
Previously published in Important Paintings and Sculpture, 22 May 2008, Art+Object the 21st Century Auction House, Auckland, pp40-41.