AA Bronson on General Idea’s Radical and Enduring Legacy
General Idea, an artistic group pioneering a queer aesthetic, is celebrated in a retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada (opening during Pride Month and running through November 20, 2022). Surviving member AA Bronson talks about his origins and his impact on art and social justice
Few collectives have marked the history of 20th century art like General Idea. Stemming from the Canadian counterculture movements of the 1960s, the conceptual trio – AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal – have spent 25 years pranking the art world with their witty take on the evils of the society, from late capitalist consumerism to popular media and the AIDS crisis. (Partz and Zontal both died of the virus in 1994.) Today, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa celebrates the group’s history with the most comprehensive retrospective to date, featuring more than 200 works spanning painting, video, sculpture, installations and archival material. “There are a lot of changes and surprises from space to space,” Bronson tells me over the phone. “Because of the size of the gallery, there was an opportunity to do something quite amazing.”
Although remembered as a trio of sophisticated artists, General Idea began as a community of sorts when, in 1969, half a dozen friends moved into a small storefront on bohemian Gerrard Street. West in Toronto. “Most of us were unemployed and looking for entertainment,” Bronson recalled. “So, we started to organize fake shops in our storefront to keep busy and somehow it became a practice.” The first projects were of an ephemeral nature, involving mail art, experimental performances and other interventions. For their first collective exhibition in 1970, they submitted a work titled General Idea, which the gallery misinterprets as the name of the collective. ‘So we became General Idea!’ Bronson laughs. Within a few years – after creating the iconic fake periodical FILE Megazine – the original membership was disbanded, largely due to Toronto’s booming real estate market. “We couldn’t find another equivalent space where seven or eight people could both live and work,” says Bronson. “Everything fell apart and we ended up with Jorge, Felix and me.”
High: Self-Portrait with Objects 1981–82 mount, gelatin silver print 35.6 × 27.7 cm National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Purchased 1985 (EX-85-142) © General Idea Photo: NGC. Above: FILE Megazine, flight. 3, no. 1 (Glamour Issue) Fall 1975 periodical offset 35.5 × 28 cm Art Metropole Fonds, Art Metropole Collection, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, Ottawa Gift of Jay A. Smith, Toronto, 1999 © General Idea Photo: General Idea Archive, Berlin, courtesy of the artist
General Idea cultivated a queer aesthetic even before there was a language to talk about it. As early as 1970, the group began to organize Dadaesque beauty contests as a satirical performance of popular art and culture. Throughout the decade, iterations of the Miss General Idea concept arose in the form of archaeological fragments of the ill-fated “Miss General Idea pavilion of 1984”. When finished and dusted off, the pageant fantasy was replaced by the equally camp motif of the poodle, which came to dominate the group’s work in the 1980s. Three loose dogs first appeared in an explicit painting at the MoMA PS1 in 1982 and soon found themselves on custom flags, crested scarves, fluorescent canvases and photographic self-portraits. “It would have been the kiss of death to call you a gay artist,” Bronson recalled of that time. Poodles then became a coded trope for their threesomes at a time when no critics were willing to discuss sexuality. “They wrote about them being a metaphor for collaboration,” laughs Bronson. It was not until the mid-1980s that an appropriate discursive framework emerged. “We felt like, all these years, we had been doing work as an excuse for someone to invent queer theory,” says the remaining poodle.
As the AIDS crisis escalated in the late 1980s, the band – which had by then relocated to New York – increasingly turned its attention to the pandemic. From this period, IMAGE VIRUS remains their most famous work: an appropriation of Robert Indiana’s famous 1960s “LOVE” logo, whose four letters General Idea have been replaced by “AIDS”. Much like the poodles, the AIDS motif first appeared on a painting before spreading across media – subway posters, public sculptures, an animated billboard in Times Square and banner ads from San Francisco to Berlin – mimicking the mechanisms of viral transmission long before “going”. viral’ was one thing.
AIDS 1987 offset print on paper 68.4 × 68.5 cm Art Metropole Collection, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, Ottawa Gift of Jay A. Smith, Toronto, 1999 © General Idea Photo: General Idea Archive, Berlin, courtesy of the artist
While labor is celebrated today, that wasn’t always the case. Turning ‘LOVE’ into ‘AIDS’ came across as an obscene semiotic gesture that divided New York’s AIDS community. The artistic arm of ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power), Gran Fury – known for its safer sex campaigns and guerrilla interventions – quickly responded with its own appropriation of the artwork, this time spelling “RIOT”. . “There was a kind of cultural separation between us,” Bronson recalled. “First of all, there was a generation difference – we were in our early 40s and they were in their early 20s. Also, we were from another country and couldn’t go to the protests because we were afraid of being deported – we were living illegally in the United States.
Since the deaths of Partz and Zontal, Bronson – who now lives in Berlin – has continued to make art while overlooking the band’s estate. “I have to make choices based on what can be shown,” Bronson says of the countless retrospectives staged in recent years, including at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Museo Jumex in Mexico City and the MALBA in Buenos Aires. But this flourishing heritage has not always been acquired. Like many other artists affected by the AIDS crisis, the collective had to maneuver strategically to avoid interference from unsupportive family members. “Essentially, we incorporated General Idea with the three of us as equal partners, and then Jorge and Felix each left me their shares of the company,” Bronson explains. “It was before the possibility of marriage. It was the only way to really protect him, otherwise all sorts of claims could be made. After Ottawa, the current retrospective will travel to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and another location yet to be discovered in Europe. Long live Miss General Idea. §