NZ pop art icon Billy Apple dies

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Pioneering New Zealand artist Billy Apple has died aged 85 overnight.

The irreverent Auckland-raised artist, born Barrie Bates, was a major contributor to the pop art and conceptual art movements.

Apple was based in New York during pop art's 1960s heyday, exhibiting alongside icons Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein.

Auckland Art Gallery former director Rhana Devenport described Apple as "New Zealand's foremost conceptual artist", and his work as ground-breaking.

"Apple's unique art investigations have crossed over into the realms of design, advertising, collecting, science, mathematics and economics, philanthropy, consumerism and more," she said at the opening of a major 2015 survey of his works.

As a young man, Bates moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art, and upon graduating, rebadged himself as Billy Apple.

"He a fundamental decision in 1962 to reinvent himself and launch himself as his own artwork," Tina Barton, Apple's long-time collaborator and biographer, told AAP.

"From that day forward, he treated every aspect of his life as worthy as attention. He became the subject of his own work, not just living in the art world but living a life."

Apple moved to New York where he collaborated with Warhol, opening an art space and exhibiting widely in the alternative art scene.

London's Serpentine Gallery hosted a major survey of Apple's works in 1974, and he continued to work in New York until 1990, when he returned to Auckland.

"He's was hugely significant for New Zealand," Ms Barton said.

"His approach to art-making has been hugely influential for so many here.

"And he made us feel closer to the art world."

Apple's works have been exhibited in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Wellington's Te Papa.

"Increasingly, he's being recognised and re-written into the histories of pop art and conceptualism, being included in more major shows," Ms Barton said.

Robert Leonard, a contemporary art curator and writer, said Apple's death was a loss to NZ's art sector.

"Not only was he a brilliant artist who continued to make surprising, important work for some 60 years, he was part of the fabric of our art scene. He was at every opening - thinking, talking, living the art life.

"Apple is remembered for the catchphrase, 'the artist has to live like everybody else'. But he was exceptional. He lived like no one else."

Apple died after a short battle with illness.

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