Internationally celebrated artist collective General Idea (active 1969-1994) generated an enormous body of work in media ranging from video, performance and publishing to painting, sculpture and installation. Over their 25 years together, they held 123 solo exhibitions and were included in 149 group exhibitions internationally, including the Paris, Sydney, Sao Paulo and Venice Biennales and Documenta in Kassel, Germany. In 2011, the Art Gallery of Ontario mounted General Idea: Haute Culture, a 25-year retrospective exhibition.
The Formation of a Collective
Ronald Gabe, Slobodan Saia-Levy and Michael Tims met in Toronto in 1969 at the Rochdale College-based Theatre Passe Muraille during rehearsals for Lanford Wilson’s Home Free, and soon they had moved in together and started making art. Early on, the three principals assumed pseudonyms to reflect their new identities as a collective. Michael Tims, OC (born 18 June 1946 in Vancouver, BC) became AA Bronson; Ron Gabe (born 23 April 1945 in Winnipeg, MB; died 5 June 1994 in Toronto, ON) became Felix Partz; and Slobodan Saia-Levy (born 28 January 1944 in Parma, Italy; died 3 February 1994 in Toronto, ON) became Jorge Zontal.
Their strengths were diverse. In the mid-1960s, Bronson and Partz studied at the University of Manitoba, Bronson in architecture, writing and editing and Partz in fine arts. Zontal, who grew up in Venezuela, studied architecture, theatre and film at Dalhousie University, Halifax.
They each separately gravitated to the counter-cultural underground in Toronto in the late 1960s. By 1969, they found themselves living and working together. General Idea focused its creative energies from the outset on understanding pop culture, and was interested in how the artist, the creative process, the museum, the media and the audience interact to form culture. To explore these phenomena, General Idea created a labyrinthine fictional narrative: Miss General Idea and The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion. The 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant was a multi-media mail art and performance piece for which they sent applications to 16 artists across North America which included rules and regulations as well as a brown, retro dress from the 1940s, called The Miss General Idea Gown. The 13 who responded sent back eight photographs of themselves modeling the gown. The lavish awards ceremony, which included a red carpet, search lights, limousines and musical performances, took place in Walker Court at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The first Miss General Idea Pageant was won by Marcel Dot, otherwise known as the artist Michael Morris.
From 1970 to 1978, General Idea created performances and installations centred on the construct of the beauty pageant as a simulacrum and critique of the art world. As the moment for the ultimate 1984 Pageant approached, General Idea claimed their fictional The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion had been engulfed in flames and became "archaeologists" (1979-1987), searching the ruins for "artifacts." In fact, they had been staging elements of this fictional destruction from the beginning. Their video Hot Property (1977) contains footage from the reputed disaster, and the voice-over contains conflicting speculations as to the cause of the disaster. Was it spontaneous combustion or arson? Their work now focused on the object, and performance largely vanished. In 1982, for instance, they presented an installation with paintings and works on paper at Documenta 10 in Kassel, Germany. In 1984, they received a large touring retrospective in Europe initiated by Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland and the Van Abbemueum Eindhoven in the Netherlands.
By 1987, General Idea shifted its focus to the AIDS epidemic. Appropriating American artist Robert Indiana's iconic LOVE painting of 1967, General Idea created the "AIDS" logo, and began a publicity campaign for the previously unmentionable disease. Over the next seven years (1987-1994) they carried out over 50 temporary public art installations internationally. Related work followed, including the installation One Year of AZT and One Day of AZT, and their seminal Fin de Siècle, an installation of three faux baby seal pups stranded on a vast Styrofoam ice floe. The hundreds of sheets of Styrofoam are arranged to look like breaking shards of ice, alluding to German romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wreck of the Hope (The Arctic Sea) (1823-24). Intended as a final collective self-portrait, the piece depicts the artists at the mercy of forces they ultimately cannot control.
Though they had been aware that they were HIV positive for years, in 1993 Zontal and Partz developed full-blown AIDS. After a period in New York City, Zontal and Bronson returned to Toronto, and the three of them lived together until Zontal and Partz died within four months from each other in 1994. On 29 January 1994, days before his death, General Idea celebrated Zontal’s 50th birthday with a party attended by more than 100 guests who flew in from all over the world for the occasion. Zontal attended dressed as a Spanish nobleman, an allusion to El Greco’s The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest (1580).
Other Activities, and AA Bronson after General Idea
General Idea published 26 issues of FILE Megazine (1972-1989). In 1974, they founded Toronto's Art Metropole as a publishing and distribution centre for artists. AA Bronson now works as a solo artist and continues to exhibit internationally. From 2004 to 2010, he was director of the book store and arts space Printed Matter, Inc. in New York City. In 2005, he founded the NY Art Book Fair. In 2009, he founded and became co-director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 2013 he became the founding director of the LA Art Book Fair.
In 2002, AA Bronson received a Governor General's Award for Visual and Media Arts. In 2008, he was made Officer of the Order of Canada and in 2011 he was named Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by Frédéric Mitterand, minister of Culture and Communications for France.