Billy Apple began his life as Barrie Bates. After leaving high school, he studied art at night classes run by the Elam School of Fine Arts, before leaving New Zealand in 1959 on a National Art Gallery scholarship. He studied at the Royal College of Art, London, until 1962. In the same year, Bates changed his name to Billy Apple, bleaching his hair as part of the adoption of this new artistic persona. Apple had his first solo show in London, at Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One. Moving to New York in 1964, Apple found work in the advertising industry, going on to make marketing and promotion an integral part of his artistic practice. Apple was involved in the early genesis of the pop art movement, exhibiting alongside Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg and Jasper Johns in the 1964 The American Supermarket show. Apple had his first major survey exhibition, From Barrie Bates to Billy Apple, in 1974 at the Serpentine Gallery.
In 1979-80 Billy Apple returned to New Zealand, touring a show entitled The Given as an Art-Political Statement, which consisted of a series of alterations to the gallery spaces hosting the show, including Barry Lett Galleries, the Govett-Brewster Gallery, and Peter McLeavey Gallery. These physical interventions in the gallery space were intended to remedy the imbalanced power relations between galleries and artists. In the 1980s Apple’s work began to engage directly with the transactional aspects of the art market, making works which are themselves records of financial exchanges. Apple returned to New Zealand on a permanent basis in 1990, and lives and works in Auckland.