From Pageant Queens to Baby Seals: The Genius of General Idea

By Sheila Singhal on October 24, 2016

Cover image for General Idea: Life and Work, Art Canada Institute, 2016. Pictured: General Idea, P is for Poodle, 1983/89, chromogenic print (Ektachrome), 75.9 x 63.4 cm, edition of three with one artist’s proof, various collections

The Summer of Love was over. The Woodstock Music & Art Fair had left Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York a sea of mud. John and Yoko had ended their Bed-In for Peace. The Beats were old news, as were Timothy Leary’s experiments with LSD and magic mushrooms.

As the counterculture of the 1960s faded, a more ironic and savvy form of cultural commentary began to replace it. Taking on everything from storefronts to the business of art, General Idea was arguably one of the funniest and hippest collectives to come out of Toronto in the early 1970s.

Loosely formed in 1969, the three core members of General Idea — who took the names Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz and AA Bronson — put an ironic spin on mainstream print and broadcast media, beauty pageants, and even the Canadian seal hunt. The slightly giddy poke-a-stick-at-the-establishment stance of their early days was later tempered by deeply moving works addressing AIDS: an illness that would take both Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz in 1994.

General Idea, Eye of the Beholder, 1989, chenille, embroidery on crest-shaped felt, 24 x 21 cm, unlimited edition, unsigned and unnumbered, various collections, photograph by Thomas E. Moore

In the recent e-book General Idea: Life and Work by Sarah E.K. Smith, published by the Art Canada Institute (ACI), General Idea’s work, and the lives of its core artists, are explored in impressive depth. “General Idea made enormous contributions to the contemporary art world with their conceptual projects across a range of media,” said Smith in an interview with NGC Magazine. “What stands out for me is their exploration of themes and topics in new and innovative ways. For instance, the group’s critical thinking about the social construction of the artist, as well as their artistic statements about queer identity, were ahead of their time and pushed boundaries in the art world.”

“What was interesting about producing this book,” Sara Angel, Founder and Director of ACI, told NGC Magazine, is that General Idea is, in some ways, among Canada’s best-know artists internationally. But there was no book to explain what it meant to be a collective, or what these three guys were all about.”

The trio first lived and worked together in a house at 78 Gerrard Street in Toronto, which had a storefront. Taking full advantage of this handy architectural feature, General Idea placed retail displays in the window. To avoid having to actually deal with customers, the door was hung with a sign bearing a permanent “Back in 5 Minutes.”

General Idea, The 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant, 1971, various media (including mail art project, performance, photography, and ephemera), dimensions variable. Various collections, including Collection of the Carmen Lamanna Estate, Toronto; documentation and ephemera held at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

One of the most enduring of the trio’s productions, however, was the Miss General Idea Pageant (1971). Originating in a mail-art project, sixteen artists around the country were sent an entry kit, which came complete with a brown satin dress and information on how to enter. Participants were required to submit photographs of themselves or a model wearing the dress. Miss General Idea and her pageant would crop up in various forms over the years, including video and installations such as the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion (1982–1983) at the Venice Biennale.

Mail art would continue to be a major component of General Idea’s oeuvre — so much so that they established the artist-run centre Art Metropole in Toronto in 1974. Initially a place to house General Idea’s burgeoning mail art collection, and later a distribution centre for other artists’ work, in 1996, Art Metropole ceased its acquisition activities in order to focus on its exhibition, publication and distribution programs. In 1999, Art Metropole’s art, documentation and archival collections were donated to the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives. Art Metropole remains in operation today and, as Smith notes, “holds an important place in the history of alternative arts venues in Canada.”

General Idea, Showcard Series, 1975–79, serigraphed cards with photographs, each card 45.7 x 35.6 cm. Various collections, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; and Collection of the Carmen Lamanna Estate, Toronto

As adherents of Marshall McLuhan’s seminal statement, “The medium is the message,” General Idea’s members were quick to embrace new technologies and mass communications. The collective’s FILE Megazine (1972–1989) for example, was an inversion of the more conventional LIFE magazine. Instead of heartwarming stories and amusing or touching photographs, FILE featured “wisecracks, wordplay and cryptic layers of fact and fiction,” according to its creators. “We knew,” Bronson is quoted in the book as saying, “that if it looked familiar, people would pick it up, and they did. We thought of it as a kind of virus within the communications systems, a concept that William Burroughs had written about in the early ’60s.”

Video was another tool in General Idea’s arsenal. Often playing with the motif of a television test pattern, General Idea’s videos appeared to feature conventional talking heads. Until they opened their mouths. From calm assessments of the place of art and artists in contemporary culture, to outright rants, the trio produced their videos for broadcast, while at the same time subverting the format.

On the face of it, General Idea often appeared disruptive, chaotic, and contentious, and was not always understood in North America. The apparent randomness of some of their work, however, belied a canny awareness of the culture in which they found themselves, and a take-no-prisoners willingness to comment freely. In Europe during the same period, they were more readily understood and celebrated, leading to a number of exhibitions and colllaborations with institutions such as Kunsthalle Basel, Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven, and Württembergischer Kunstverein.

As the 1980s closed, General Idea’s work became darker. Partz was diagnosed with AIDS in 1989, and Zontal was diagnosed in 1990. The work that follows often comments directly on the AIDS crisis, from political inaction to antiviral drugs.

General Idea, AIDS, 1987, acrylic on canvas, 182.9 x 182.9 cm. Private collection

In what is perhaps one of its most famous works, General Idea reimagined the iconic Love sculpture created by American artist Robert Indiana in 1966. Changing the four letters of the original to A-I-D-S, the collective reproduced the image in paintings, installations and sculpture. Although occasionally criticized for not including information on safe sex with the image, General Idea was usually applauded for its garish flaunting of the word.

As Partz and Zontal became more ill, the trio’s world shrank to their shared apartment-studio, and AA Bronson took on a greater role as caregiver. The works from this period unabashedly address the realities of the disease. One Year of AZT (1991), which is part of the national collection, was an unblinking representation of the number of pills an AIDS patient had to take in a single year: 1,825. Another work, One Day of AZT (1991), presents a daily dosage of five pills. As Smith further comments in the book, “The Fibreglas pills in One Day of AZT are on a monumental scale; each is slightly larger than a body, alluding to coffins.”

One of the later works produced by General Idea is the strangely moving Fin de siècle (1990), comprised of three soft-sculpture baby seals, adrift on a sea of foam ice floes. Alluding only loosely to the seal hunt, Fin de siècle was intended as a commentary on the helplessness of AIDS sufferers. As Zontal said, rather pithily, “It’s easier to sell ‘save the seals’ . . . because they’re cuter than three middle-aged homosexuals.”

General Idea, Fin de siècle, 1990, installation of expanded polystyrene with three stuffed faux seal pups (acrylic, glass, and straw), dimensions variable. Private collection, Turin

Both Zontal and Partz died of AIDS-related complications in 1994. Perhaps one of the most searing images in the book is a digital print produced by AA Bronson of Partz shortly after death. The work is hard to look at: Partz had wasted away so badly that he could no longer close his eyes. And yet, as Bronson poignantly notes, as Partz got closer to death, “he started wearing colours that were more alive . . . He got totally crazed with pattern and colour.”

Although studied by art students and lionized in Europe, General Idea was relatively unfamiliar to everyday Canadians. As early adopters of mass media and astute observers of Western culture and its foibles, however, General Idea arguably set the stage for many of the media-savvy artists who followed them. “General Idea’s conceptual projects across multiple media were groundbreaking,” says Smith. “They were prolific, and their work, which continues to resonate with new audiences, provided keen insights into social issues.”

Over the past decade, General Idea’s legacy has been revisited. Recent retrospectives at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the Esther Schipper Gallery in Berlin, and an upcoming tour of Latin America are reminding a new generation of what all the fuss was all about. Unique for their time, General Idea created new hybrid art forms, dove deep into the culture, and held up an ironic mirror to the world around them. And that, as this book so amply demonstrates, is something worth celebrating.

General Idea: Life & Work is available to read online or download from the Art Canada Institute site. Additional information on the General Idea fonds at the NGC Library and Archives is available here.

By Sheila Singhal| October 24, 2016
Categories:  Recommendations

About the Author

Sheila Singhal

Sheila Singhal

Sheila Singhal is a writer, editor and blogger living in Ottawa, Canada.

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