That General Idea has contributed significantly to the history of art is widely acknowledged in publications and sprinkled throughout the writings in the voluminous catalogue that accompanies the General Idea exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. The attendant literature relates influences – the cornerstone of media theory, Marshall McLuhan; the definitive art star, Andy Warhol; Joseph Beuys, who fuzzed the lines between art and life; geometric abstractionists such as Frank Stella, Nicholas Krushenick, and Robert Smith; the structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss – all of whom were invested in bringing observations of contemporaneity into new formats. These luminaries shook things up in a manner that rumbled through norms.

 General Idea, however, was, as Bowie sang, “saying more and meaning less” (which can also be read as “meaningless”). General Idea presaged the present era, in which Facebook fame is available to anyone with an understanding of algorithm, and ambitious entrepreneurs advertising their wares through social media have created a glut of information that is impossible to parse. General Idea had to say more in order to be heard. And what they said spread; they were infectious. With Derridean fervor, they deconstructed processes, institutions, cultural icons and hierarchies with viral results.  General Idea, three courageous gate crashers, redistributed the status quo. They set out to be famous and they became famous – at least in the art world, the scene that mattered to them. Fame brought them the influence that is its by-product.

This is how they contributed – they broke apart the hard shell that had formed around art and by the 1960s, they wiggled their way in.

Ron Gabe, with a BFA from the University of Manitoba, became Private Felix Partz. Also from the University of Manitoba, but in architecture, who left before graduating to start a free school (The School); a free store (The Store) and a newspaper (The Loving Couch Press), was Michael Tims, who became AA Bronson. Jorge Zontal, born Slobodan Siai-Levy in Parma, Italy, and raised primarily in Venezuela, graduated in architecture from Dalhousie University, Halifax, in 1968. The trio came together in Toronto in 1969.

Irreverent, hugely imaginative, and confident, they began to collaborate. They took turns playing storekeeper, office worker, artist, architect, film director, researcher, printer and publisher, flaneur, and movie star. They ran an open shop, but you needed to be “in” to know where and when it was open. They were light on their toes and brought queer sensibility out in the open with such convincing aplomb that they weathered, unrumpled, any contumely.

Exhibition view L’art et la vie de General Idea (2022) Photo : MBAC Courtoisie du Musée des beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa
General Idea, AIDS (Bilboard) (1988) Reproduction of 2022 Offset print on vinyl Photo: NGC. Courtesy of the artist

In the late 1960s, there was a position held within the emerging arts community that eschewed the rigidity of the white cube gallery, claiming that the institutionalization of art created sterility, bureaucracy, exclusion, and injustice. The cry was “art as life, life as art,” a Duchampian concept that suited the hippie years. General Idea became their own art scene, insinuating their validity through spurious donations to collections, dispersing their “brand” through mail art, and creating FILE Megazine, which served to edify those in their spotlight, a complementary tool. They began a beauty pageant at a time when the fluffiness of the format was criticized as superficial, practically politically incorrect. They designed a pavilion that existed in the narrative surrounding General Idea but was infamous for its dubious physical life; designed and then claimed to have been built, the pavilion was said to have been used before it burnt down and “lived on,” lauded and eloquently remembered. The aura at General Idea Headquarters – there was a military rhetoric in their revolutionary vocabulary – was constantly becoming, innovative, righteously egotistical, and usually great fun. The trio was smart – witty, scathingly social, ironic, and perceptive. They had been right to aim high. Felix, Jorge, and AA were meant to be stars.

Adam Welch, who curated the show at the National Gallery, worked with the last surviving member of General Idea, AA Bronson. Welch chronologically grants a cohesive sampling of the trio’s trajectory. Introduced to the aesthetic through a grand reconstruction of the Miss General Idea Pavilion, replete with heraldic wall crests, a meet-and-greet of the entourage then sets the scene. Copies of FILE, photographs, and ephemera reveal that the pulse for General Idea came from a crowd that eventually was sustained through the three primary players.

AIDS accelerated General Idea’s political messaging as the need arose to voice a perspective that came right from the people it affected – the vulnerable gay community.  AIDS didn’t flatten their cheeky flamboyance: they entered the fray by imitating Robert Indiana’s famous painting LOVE (1967), substituting the sacred four-letter word with the (then fatal) acronym AIDS, in red, green and blue. The pill installation One Year of AZT (1991)brings into view the horrible tedium of having to deal with the rapidly advancing condition before there were solutions: 1,825 units, hard, slick, and repetitive, exemplify the enclosure of the gallery walls. In the centre are five pills the size of coffins. Against the wall, three chairs: red, green, and blue.

on the wall: General Idea, One Year of AZT (1991) 1825 units, vacuum formed styrene, vinyl, 12.7 × 31.7 × 6.3 cm eq. on the floor: General Idea, One Day of AZT (1991) 5 units, fiberglass, 85 × 214 × 85 cm eq. Gift of Patsy and Jamie Anderson, Toronto (2001) Photo: NGC. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © General Idea

The chill is played up further in Fin de Siècle (1990). Three baby seals, unreachable and distant, are placed in an icy-white landscape of Styrofoam lit by aqua-green lights below and above and by the unflattering exposure of white fluorescents. General Idea’s reliable stagecraft heightened the appeal of the animal rights-issue of the time: three baby seals, three gay men – a rallying cry. But not in time. Before the life-saving cocktail was discovered, Jorge Zontal and then Private Felix Partz succumbed to complications from AIDS, leaving behind AA Bronson.

Moments after Private Felix Partz died, lying in bed, surrounded by patterns and colours, AA Bronson took a photograph of him and General Idea gave the art world a last iconic image. And then, General Idea, with Jorge and Felix gone, could become no more.

AA Bronson can, and did, shed truth on the telling, but then General Idea was never about an unwavering stance; they were about engaging art with life, where truth is as nebulous as the past and stretches with the wearer. Far more interesting, and perspicacious.

The bouquet that General Idea brought to the banquet bloomed big and never wilted, the petals pressed between the pages of an art practice integrated into life, documented and preserved with style, professionalism, and authenticity. General Idea brought another important element into an art world that tended to take itself very seriously. They brought humour to the table and made the dinner party scintillate.

The French translation of this article is published in the 269 issue of Vie des arts – Winter 2023.


General Idea
Curator: Adam Welch
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
June 3rd – November 20th, 2022