from Art in America Magazine, March 2005

The enduring ephemera of General Idea:
an ambitious 30-year survey assembles prints, posters, photo works, banners and other objects that document General Idea's legacy of irreverent wit and fierce activism

by Peter Gallo


Somewhere near the end of modernism, a couple of years after John Latham chewed up Clement Greenberg's Art & Culture and fermented a mash of spit and criticism, and shortly before Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol, and Marcel Broodthaers participated in the occupation of the Palais de Beaux-Arts in Brussels, three young Canadians barely out of art school formed the Toronto-based collaborative General Idea. "Huddled against the Canadian winter of 1968," as their "auto-legend" has it, George Saia, Ronald Gabe and Michael Tims dispensed with their birth names and became, respectively, Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz and AA Bronson. "Being a trio," they wrote in a manifesto, "frees us from the tyranny of the individual genius." (1)

A year later, drawing a trajectory that connected Rrose Selavy to the drag queens of 1969's Stonewall riots in New York, the three began working under another signature rubric, "Miss General Idea." A 1971 altered photograph, which they called their "artist's conception," figures her as a transvestite, rubber-outfitted version of Hugo Ball at Cabaret Voltaire. Miss General Idea functioned as the group's muse, and General Idea hosted a series of Miss General Idea beauty pageants that set out in countercultural fashion "to (capture) glamour without falling into it." (2) Contestants for the 1971 pageant were selected from the group's artist friends, and the winner that year, Vancouver artist Michael Morris, was crowned "queen" and is remembered in the annals of General Idea activity as Marcel Idea.

There followed over the course of a 25-year collaboration what seems like a tireless outpouring of museum installations, boutiques, films, performances, photographic works, manifestos and publications such as FILE magazine, which re-figured the logo and format of Life magazine. Filching anything that flowed through the contemporary art and culture media stream, File was part of the group's overall effort to dispense with the avant-garde/popular culture divide and to co-opt promotion for the sole, Dada-like purpose of generating more promotion. It anticipated many queercore and punk zines of the later '70s and '80s (of which, thanks to local figures like Bruce LaBruce, Toronto was a fountainhead) as well as more recent mass-media interventions, such as the widely distributed, anti-globalist Vancouver-based publication Adbusters.

During the 1980s, General Idea turned the larger part of its effort to the AIDS disaster, adapting the "viral logic" of the simulacrum, a concept they took from writer William S. Burroughs, to the production of multiples. The collaborative was enormously successful at getting the word out. Their meaningfully transgressive reinscription of Robert Indiana's ubiquitous "LOVE" logo as "AIDS" (1987), mass-produced and distributed on posters, billboards, tchotchkes, electronic images, lottery tickets and stamps (it even made the cover of the Journal of the American Medical Association) became--with Gran Fury and Donald Moffett's brilliant Silence=Death campaign and 1989's landmark exhibition "Witnessing: Against Our Disappearance," curated by Nan Goldin--among the most effective works of cultural activism aimed at breaking through the denial, inaction and ineptitude in which the official response to the public health crisis was mired.

With nearly 200 objects, "General Idea: Editions, 1967-1995" is the first show since "General Idea's Fin de Siecle" (which originated at the Wurttembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart and toured internationally in 1992-93) to gather so substantial a number of the trio's works. Barbara Fischer, director of the Blackwood Gallery at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, took on what must have been the daunting task of assembling nearly three decades of the collaborative's multiples--daunting in that it was never, in the strict sense, General Idea's purpose to supply museums or collectors with archivable fine-art objects. Their prints, banners and photographic material, often queered versions of work from the modernist canon, were the implements of participatory, usually ephemeral gestures and events.

General Idea's early work echoes Broodthaers's critique of the museum industry during the late '60s and early '70s. Broodthaers turned a critical eye on the ways museums create and administrate cultural values. He devised elaborate exhibitions, such as "Museum of Modern Art--Department of Eagles" (1968-72), which mocked the installation format and with great humor exposed the ways in which museums use art to build institutional stature. In the same critical spirit, General Idea's first efforts focused on the production and dissemination of art's discursive set-up material, mostly the paperwork that surrounds and supports both the creation and reception of art, including press releases, clippings, notices and reviews, exhibition announcements and invitations, self-published postcards and broadside handouts, mail-art projects, catalogues, art posters and entry kits for the Miss General Idea pageants. Most of this early material consists of offset prints appropriated from '30s and '40s fashion ads, with the urban, Deco, slightly shady but elegant (like Toronto itself) look of noir film.

Eventually, these practices would expand into the architectural realm of pavilion, storefront and museum design, including a series of shops that functioned as small retail outlets for General Idea's inexpensively manufactured multiples. These projects, The Belly Store (1969) for example, parodied art's connection to commerce and suggested ways of making art available to a larger, less exclusive public. In 1974, the group announced the creation of its own book and multiples distribution center, Art Metropole, in Toronto. Art Metropole still functions as a not-for-profit business, selling artists' books and multiples online.

What General Idea produced and performed was also suffused with emergent queer politics. One recognizes in the group's numerous early chain letters and mail-art projects, such as the Orgasm Energy Chart (1970), echoes of Ray Johnson, and, in their installation and performance work, of the earlier film and performance work of Jack Smith. Smith's 1963 cult film classic Flaming Creatures introduced a cast of campy and erotic voluptuaries, some of them drag queens, in a series of beautiful and delirious tableaus. It drastically pushed the envelope of gender and sexual representation at the time, and was impounded immediately after its release. Drag and transgenderism are now art world and pop culture commonplaces (from Madonna to Grayson Perry). But prior to mass culture's absorption of these marginal practices, the immediate impact of Smith's work on the underground activities of its day is clearly evident in General Idea's work, particularly in the figure of Miss General Idea and the "creatures" who participated in her pageants.

Through the late '70s and into the early '80s, General Idea honed its take on the appropriationist methods that characterized the vanguard art of the period. Influenced by then-current theoretical trends, the three devised recombinant strategies that treated modernist and more recent art and found objects alike as textual objects. Magic Palette (1980) originated as a found set of colored anodized aluminum cups editioned as a cocktail service with a tray shaped like a traditional artist's palette. A postcard of a Lucio Fontana monochrome painting with slashes from the early '60s was reformatted in 1991 as an edition of table-top Kleenex dispensers called Gesundheit (Why Not Sneeze Lucio Fontana?). The title, of course, playfully echoes Duchamp's Why Not Sneeze Rose Selavy? (1921), whose own title references Duchamp's female alter ego. General Idea's handmade edition of glass dildo/butt plugs, Dick All (1993/2001), provides a humorous companion piece to Duchamp's 1954 Wedge of Chastity.

Along with Duchamp's work, Yves Klein's was a favored point of departure. Klein's multidisciplinary project of the 1950s included monochrome painting, writing, martial arts, performance, musical composition and film. It furthered the movement of art beyond the formal restrictions of the individual metier and pushed the European avant-garde toward the Nouveau Realisme advocated by critic Pierre Restany. General Idea took great pleasure in parodying Klein's 1958 "Anthropometries," in which the French artist slathered his lovely female models with "International Klein Blue" paint and, using them as "living brushes," publicly performed large-scale action paintings. For bleu (1984), the collaborative used three life-size, stuffed white Standard French poodles to smear large blue X's on enormous spans of unstretched canvas. The poodles had been fabricated by a Berlin taxidermist to General Idea's specifications and, it must be noted, no real animal parts were used.

In retrospect, it is somewhat astonishing that even prior to the AIDS epidemic and Zontal's and Partz's HIV-positive status, the group commenced a critique of the corporatization of science and medicine in works that were send-ups of both the pharmaceutical and taste industries. In the late '70s, Colour Bar Lounge was conceived as a laboratory-cure-cocktail bar where experimental drinks were mixed and served in test tubes. With the lounge, General Idea set out to develop a new gay science "dedicated to the eradication of abstract depressionism and the encouragement of artful research." (3)

For the Colour Bar Lounge's debut at the 1979 Basel Art Fair, the Italian dealer Lucio Amelio published six lounge decor images, including the famous Nazi Milk (1979), which features an altered photograph of a uniformed blond boy, a glass of milk in his hand, the residue of milk above his lip an explicitly Hitlerian trace. The dairy industry's more recent "Got Milk?" ad campaign, which shows healthy, smiley models with milk mustaches who extol the presumed health benefits of the beverage, acquires a certain uncanniness in light of General Idea's earlier image.

By the early '90s, appropriation and travesty had become routine practices in art, but, with the consciousness of the AIDS crisis, General Idea developed an entirely new strategy for elaborating the critical meaning of older works of art: they altered them through "infection." The signature red, green and blue of the LOVE/AIDS logo were used to chromatically replace the primary colors of a classic Rietveld chair (Infe[c]ted Rietveld, 1994). The influence of Duchamp continued to pervade the collaborative's efforts. In 1921 Duchamp proposed that Dada works might "protect against ... life's multiple troubles, something like Little Pink Pills which cure everything." (4) General Idea altered Duchamp's own alterations of a found chromolithograph landscape, Pharmacie (1914), by inserting three hovering red, green and blue capsule forms (called "placebos" by the artists), and retitled it Infe[c]ted Phannacie.

For the current exhibition, Fischer has gathered samples of the artists' student projects, and these works make clear the consistency of General Idea's project virtually from the outset. In the early years of the Xerox machine, Ron Gabe (Partz) produced a small signed edition of three photocopied reproductions of Pop works, notable among them Warhol's 100 Soup Cans (1967). The "Xerox Series" procured a failing grade for Partz in the printmaking course, but to a remarkable degree, it anticipated later appropriations by Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Ronald Jones, Nayland Blake and others. More pointedly, Partz's choice foreshadowed the ways in which General Idea would draw on and move beyond the Warhol legacy.

As the artistic purveyor of so much disaster, Warhol maintained a mechanically overdetermined "disinterested interest" in his subjects. The disturbing beauty of the "Disaster" works was achieved by projecting the banalized images of horror that pepper the tabloids onto the austere, estheticized plane of late-modern monochrome painting. Warhol's project commenced in the early '60s as, in his own words, a "statement" on the "harsh, impersonal and brash materialistic objects on which America is built today." (5) Yet after the attempt on his life, Warhol himself seemed vulnerable to the violence that his art commented upon; the distance between the artist and his subject matter was more disassociative than esthetic or even ironic, a symptom perhaps of the trauma.

In contrast, General Idea launched illuminating critiques of the culture and pharmaceutical industries while not losing sight of the healing and medicinal powers of irony. Even as it was engulfed in the AIDS disaster and was losing two of its own (Zontal and Partz both died in 1994), the collaborative continued to pull off provocatively gay Duchampian pranks. Most of the multiples produced during General Idea's final years made humorous, even sarcastic, allusions to both modern art and HIV. The installation Magi[c] Bullet (1992), for example, featured 1,500 helium-filled, capsule-shaped Mylar balloons, which make reference to both Andy Warhol's silvery pillows of 1966 and the anti-HIV drug AZT. Playing Doctor (1992), a serf-published photographic edition, depicts the three artists in white physician's coats posed with stethoscopes and an assortment of signature red, green and blue placebos floating above their heads.

Since the deaths of his partners, Bronson has produced some powerful works dealing with mortality, survival, grief and renewal. Felix, June 5, 1994 (1994/99) features a photograph taken by Bronson of Partz in the hours that immediately followed his death. Bronson prepared Partz's body as though for a wake, dressing it in a Klimtian array of wildly patterned textiles and arranging some of Partz's favorite things around it: a tape recorder, cigarettes, a TV remote control. Six prints of this high-key, lacquer-on-vinyl, photo-transfer billboard image were featured in the exhibition "Dream City" in Munich in 1999. The image also was included in the Montreal Biennial in 2000 and in the 2002 Whitney Biennial.

Bronson continues to produce a wide range of projects, including sculpture, installation, video, performance and Internet works. He likens his post-General Idea experience to that of a stroke victim. "Without Felix and Jorge (and consequently without General Idea)," he wrote in a recent e-mail exchange with this writer, "I found myself without an identity, and my work since then has focused on reconstructing an identity."

His 2003 show at Galerie Frederic Giroux in Paris, titled "AA Bronson*Healer," featured a trade booth at which one could purchase a two-hour "healing session" with the artist. In the General Idea spirit of marvelous bluff--in this instance, a bluff that surely did not compromise the sessions' personal, therapeutic and overall cultural value--Bronson issued printed certificates to authenticate and document each consumer's purchase. Each certificate, in time, will become the unique and valuable reminder of a truly fabulous encounter.

1.) General Idea, "'How our mascots love to humiliate us ...'. Revelations from the doghouse," in General Idea: 1968-1984, Basel, Kunsthalle, 1984, p. 25.

(2.) Ibid., p. 28.

(3.) Ibid., p. 36.

(4.) Marcel Duchamp, Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, New York, Oxford University Press, 1973, p. 180.

(5.) Andy Warhol, "Artist's Comment," Art in America, No. 1, 1962, p. 42.

"General Idea: Editions, 1967-1996" was organized by Barbara Fischer for the Blackwood Gallery, University of Toronto at Mississauga, where it debuted Jan. 15, 2003, followed by a long tour of Canadian institutions. The exhibition is currently on view at Luckman Gallery, California State University, Los Angeles [Mar. 19-May 14]. Future venues include the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, British Columbia [June 10-Aug. 7]; the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh [Oct. 7-Dec. 31]; the Kunstverein Munich [January-March 2006]; the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle [April-July 2006]; and the University of Southern Florida Contemporary Art Museum, Tampa [fall 2006]. The show is accompanied by a 320-page illustrated catalogue raisonne with essays by Jean-Christophe Ammann, AA Bronson, Joshua Decter, Mike Kelley and other contributors.

Peter Gallo is an artist and writer who lives and works in Vermont and Montreal.

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