I’m indebted to Tate Liverpool curator Darren Pih for the connection between a photograph which appeared in ARK 33 – the edition of the Royal College Of Art magazine – and a contemporaneous work by the artist Billy Apple.
Pih points out that Apple’s 1961-2 piece ‘Relation Of Aesthetic Choice To Life Activity (Function) Of The Subject’ appropriates the portrait of a uniformed customs officer which appeared in Keith Branscombe’s ARK photo-story ‘Twist Drunk/Drunk Twist’.
Apple later explained that since the work depicted “a customs officer who inspects baggage, often making arbitrary decisions about who to check… I selected one of four photographs of the officer and ‘checked’ it with red neon, singling it out for specific inspection”.
Apple studied at the college between 1959 and 1962 as the New Zealander Barrie Bates. His adoption of the Billy Apple identity occurred after graduation; this had started the previous year when he and fellow student David Hockney visited New York, where they came across the hair colouring product Lady Clairol Instant Crème Whip. This was to transform both their appearances. Bates officially became Apple when he bleached his hair and eyebrows using the Clairol dye on November 22, 1962.
According to the Tate’s senior modern and contemporary art curator Andrew Wilson, the title of the work which uses the Branscombe image “provides a commentary surrounding the decisions [Apple] made when formulating this shift of identity”.
Relation Of Aesthetic Choice To Life Activity (Function) Of The Subject was in Apple’s first solo exhibition, Apple Sees Red: Live Stills in 1963.
Having appeared in such groundbreaking shows as The American Supermarket with Warhol and Lichtenstein in New York the following year, Apple has exhibited the world over and remained active since his return to Auckland in 1990.
Read Anthony Byrt’s fascinating 2015 interview with Apple, entitled The Immortal Artist, here.
Apple’s website, which lists only his name and an apple logo, is here.
Read more from Wilson on Apple’s artwork here.