This year marks 50 years since Barrie Bates changed his name to Billy Apple. As one of the 'young contemporaries', he was at the vanguard of British Pop and one of the pioneers of New York conceptual art. In the US, he showed alongside Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Billy Apple, 77, lives with his partner, Mary, in Mt Eden.

1 Why an apple?

Why Coca-Cola?

2 What is the most misunderstood thing about you?

That people think I don't make my own works. Look at it this way - I refine the concept behind the works then I work like an art director with a specialist team to produce the best possible outcome. This has been part of my practice since the 60s.


3 As a New Zealand artist, what has been your greatest struggle?

To not be a New Zealand artist and to be respected for this.

4 What does "important work" mean? How can a work be defined in that way - what must it say?

On a personal level, it changes the direction of your thinking. On a broader level, it changes the course of art.

5 What piece of art moves you to tears?

Bob Indiana's two text paintings with the words EAT and DIE, which I saw in 1962 in his New York loft.

6 Tell us a story about Andy Warhol

When I flew to New York from London in 1961 for a visit, I rang Andy saying I wanted to meet up with him. We were familiar with each other's work and he invited me to join him for a soda at a little boutique café called Serendipity behind Bloomingdales. When I got there he was with two other people - one was Henry Geldzahler, curator of American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the other was a wonderful young writer called Gene Swenson. It was a great moment - not only for me to meet him and to get to know him but to share his contacts was very generous.

7 Your art has a close connection with commerce - advertising, branding. Could you describe that relationship?

In 1960, even before I became Billy Apple, I had introduced advertising's systems of thinking into my own art practice. These systems have continued to form part of the content of my art.

8 What's your most political piece?

My practice is very much about art politics. But, in 2009, I produced a concept for a New Zealand flag based on the 2006 Census population data - 14 per cent Maori and 86 per cent Other. A study of the flag was recently auctioned to raise funds for Tame Iti's appeal to the Supreme Court. The successful bidder was the Auckland Art Gallery, which goes to show, you can't escape art politics.

9 What would be your rejoinder if someone said of your work, 'a cat could draw that'?

I'd like to meet that cat!

10 Has all the ground been broken - is there anything radical left to do or has it all been done?

Good question! There is a lot of recycling going on.

11 What makes you laugh?

Watching my West Highland white terrier, Macintosh Apple, chase a basketball around a rugby field.

12 What gives you pleasure?

My 'Art For ...' charitable series, which lets me make work about organisations like Women's Refuge, Aids Foundation and Youthline. They are the subject of the works I create, and then I arrange the sales to generate money in support of specific projects for them.

•Billy Apple celebrates 50 years with an exhibition with Waiheke Community Art Gallery, from September 28-October 15.