Billy Apple

Self Portraits (Apple Sees Red on Green)


Not on display

Billy Apple born 1935
Lithograph on primed canvas
Support: 1020 × 765 mm
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 2013


Self Portraits (Apple Sees Red on Green) 1962 is from a series of twelve near-identical canvases that incorporate colour photographs of the artist Billy Apple taken by Robert Freeman. These photographs were printed on primed canvas using an offset lithographic process, and this work is unique. The portraits show the front and back views of Apple’s blonde-haired head, against green and red backgrounds. The two images are printed side by side towards the top of the portrait-format canvas, and the surrounding area is left blank. The series was originally hung together at head height in Apple’s first solo exhibition, Apple Sees Red: Live Stills at Gallery One, London in April 1963.

The self-portraits in the Apple Sees Red series acted like publicity shots to herald a new brand or product. The form and pose of the image read like a mugshot, while Apple’s naked neck and shoulders suggest rebirth. The Apple Sees Red self-portraits were made shortly after the artist changed his identity from Barrie Bates – the name he was still using when he went to the Royal College of Art (RCA), London in 1959 – to Billy Apple in 1962. In the summer of 1961 Apple and fellow RCA student David Hockney visited New York together for two months, where they discovered the hair colouring product Lady Clairol Instant Crème Whip. Hockney’s transformation into a blonde using this product was recorded in the third plate of his sequence of prints A Rake’s Progress, entitled The Start of the Spending Spree and the Door Opening for a Blonde 1961–3 (Tate P07033). Apple’s own transformation at the same time –evidenced in the blonde hair seen in these self-portraits – also marked the preliminary outward manifestation of his change of identity from Bates to Apple, which eventually took place on 22 November 1962 after he had graduated. The location chosen for this event was the studio and home of artist Richard Smith. Self Portraits (Apple Sees Red on Green) is thus one of a number of objects conveying his re-invented self identity, his new ‘Billy Apple brand’. This also included Relation of Aesthetic Choice to Life Activity (Function) of the Subject) 1961–2 (Tate T13876).

The Apple Sees Red works exemplify Apple’s idiosyncratic manifestation of pop art, which drew on the language of advertising to convey his own re-branding as a way of blurring the distinctions between art and life, as well as people and products. Apple has explicitly described his aim with this and similar works as an attempt ‘to break down the separation between “art activity” and “life activity”. I decided to use my own identity as the vehicle with which to explore the concept of the artist as “art object” … the art process-work-object and the artist become interchangeable.’ (Quoted in Serpentine Gallery 1974, p.11.)

During his trip to New York in 1961 Apple had spent some time getting work experience at advertising agencies. At Sudler and Hennessey he learned about pitching ideas to a client and met Herb Lubalin, one of the most influential creative directors in New York at that time. The effect of this meeting was galvanising for Apple; Lubalin, art historian Christina Barton has explained,

taught him about the importance of a clear concept and the power of typography to convey it. On the strength of this and related experiences, Apple quickly began to privilege the idea as the driving force for any work, using media (typography, photography, painting and bronze casting, drawing, printing and film) as means to convey the concept and delegating others the job of realising his vision.
(Barton in Mayor Gallery 2010, p.14.)

After the Gallery One show in 1963 Apple moved to New York, where he continued to produce pop-related work, often using neon, and exhibited at the Bianchini Gallery, Howard Wise Gallery and the Pepsi Cola Gallery. By the end of the 1960s he shifted to a more process-oriented and conceptual practice for which he opened his own project gallery, Apple.

Further reading
From Barrie Bates to Billy Apple, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1974, p.9.
Billy Apple®: British and American Works 1960–69, exhibition catalogue, Mayor Gallery, London 2010, pp.36, 43.

Andrew Wilson
March 2013

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