exhibition
General Idea, Light On, 1970-1974. b/w videotape, 20:00 minutes on 3/4" cassette. Purchased 1978, National Gallery of Canada (no. 28346). Photo © NGC / CMCP.
General Idea, Light On, 1970-1974. b/w videotape, 20:00 minutes on 3/4" cassette. Purchased 1978, National Gallery of Canada (no. 28346). Photo © NGC / CMCP.

Canadian, active Toronto 1969-1994

“There is a General Idea text from the mid-seventies that refers to the gallery’s relationship to art being very much like the garage’s relationship to the car: we use the gallery to tinker with and repair the work, but the function of our art is out on the road, in a way-it’s within the current of the culture.”
AA Bronson, 1991

In 1968, AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal founded the Toronto based artists’ group General Idea. They took on new names-Bronson, for example, was born Michael Tims-and worked together, each bringing experience and talent in various media. They produced art in many media that would infiltrate and be inspired by popular culture over 26 years. They exhibited internationally, were founding members of the artist’s archive and resource centre, Art Metropole, and published the magazine File between 1972 and 1984. Their works are now held by major collecting institutions including the National Gallery of Canada. The group dissolved in 1994 when Partz and Zontal died within months of each other of AIDS related illnesses.

General Idea’s subjects came from mass culture’s consumerism, celebrity, glamour, and from the art world. Their artworks participated in mass culture, rather than oppose or work outside it. They enjoyed creating ambiguous artworks that blurred the distinction between art and popular culture. In 1972, General Idea launched File magazine. It looked so much like Life magazine- “file” is an anagram of “life”-that the publisher of Life threatened legal action.

In 1970, the group held the first Miss General Idea Beauty Pageant, a contest that provided the framework for much of their art during the decade. A shift came in 1977 with the staged destruction of the fictional 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion, a key element of the project. The pageants continued until 1978, but the focus changed from anticipating the 1984 contest to the archeological retrieval and archival preservation of an event and structure that never existed.

In the late 1980s, General Idea launched their AIDS logo based on Robert Indiana’s Love painting from the late 1960s. This new work was immediately recognizable and created an ambiguous message by its obvious homage to Indiana’s popular Love logo. Bronson claims that by using an already popular form, they were hoping for immediate acceptance by the public. This would translate into AIDS awareness, but would also enable different interpretations for the piece which took many forms including a poster, screen-saver and t-shirt.

Since the death of Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, AA Bronson has archived much of General Idea’s work, housing it at the National Gallery of Canada. He has produced a billboard project (Felix, 1994) and an artist’s book commemorating the group, and received the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2002. In 1999 he said he was still “learning again the limits of my nervous system, how to function without my extended body (no longer three heads, twelve limbs), how to create possibilities from my reduced physicality.”