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Legendary art group General Idea gets a retrospective in Canada –

When General Idea started making art in the 1960s, the older generation was already shocked by the sex, drugs, and rock and roll that defined the era. But nothing could prepare them for what was to come thanks to artists AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal.

In a first, the National Gallery of Canada is acknowledging the group (don’t call them a “collective,” said Bronson, the only surviving member) with a massive survey of their work from its very beginnings. After its presentation in Ottawa, the exhibition will travel to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

What began as an experiment has become a powerful force in contemporary Canadian art. Until then, no one talked much about non-normative sexual and gender identity. General idea sought talk – and they did, striking up a conversation that might not have happened otherwise in polite middle-class society.

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From the show, it’s clear that there was no plan for the group from the start. The three artists lived in a commune in Toronto with other types of creators who left one by one, leaving behind Bronson, Partz and Zontal.

“We were inspired by a rock band,” Bronson said in an interview from his home in Berlin. As one of the educational signs at the entrance to the fair states: “We wanted to be famous, glamorous and rich… we were and we are.

Among the works on display are paintings, drawings, installations, multiples, sculptures, texts, photographs, test tubes, videos, balloons and a myriad of ephemeral pieces. Much of it came from others working on the periphery of the outrageous creative movement, much of it was – and still is – provocative (butt plugs, bondage, creations that test feminism). Lest anyone think this sounds inconsistent, it doesn’t: General Idea may not have had a plan, but they commandeered concepts from, among others, media expert Marshall McLuhan and writer William S. Burroughs, blatantly reorienting them into an eloquent account of the times. .

In 1972, General Idea launched a publication that told LIFE magazine, a pillar of the publishing industry read by millions. The version of General Idea, CASE, was uploaded with stolen content (many examples are exposed in the show). In a single edition, says Bronson, excerpts from Roland Barthes’ 1957 book Mythologies have been incorporated, word for word. People picked it up at the newsstand thinking it was LIFE, which was part of the artistic intent.

Other pieces continued this kind of artistic flight. An installation that doubles as a real retail shop playing with the 1936 work of Marcel Duchamp Flying Hearts. An iconic landscape painting by Canadian artist Tom Thomson was used as the background for an artwork referencing HIV treatment.

“What we were doing,” Bronson said, “was seen as morally and ethically corrupt.”

Colorful painting of the word AIDS.

General idea, AIDS1987.

©General Idea/Courtesy Blondeau & Cie/Private collection

Canada may not have been ready for Bronson and his collaborators, and they were considering moving to Europe, but everyone was going to New York where many others were pushing the artistic envelope. Despite what Lawrence Weiner told them – that New York was the best place to connect with Europeans, but “don’t expect Americans to like you” – that’s where they went. General Idea officially moved to New York in 1986.

Around the same time General Idea arrived in New York, AIDS arrived in the city. “On the one hand,” Bronson said, “it was a perfect opportunity. On the other hand, it felt like a bit in bad taste.

When AIDS spread, General Idea responded. “It started as a project,” Bronson said, “and it became something that took over our lives.” They had previously stolen Burroughs’ idea of ​​the “viral image” by using the messaging system to distribute what Bronson called “mass memorabilia.” These arrived in the form of a certificate announcing that the recipient was now the proud owner of an original General Idea work – the mail itself. Here is a virus that was killing their friends. The irony was not lost on them.

Robert Indiana’s Famous TO LIKE image served as a model for one of their first responses to the health crisis. General Idea replaced the letters with AIDS. It looked like a pre-web meme, and like the disease it went viral, appearing on t-shirts, posters, stamps, wallpaper and banners, and as public transport ads. The budding pandemic became their muse, as did the hedonism and consumerism of the 1980s.

Adam Welch, curator of the General Idea exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, was born after the group began making this work. He heard of them as a young gay man in Toronto and noted that their output retains all the impact it would have had in his time. “To see them tackle the problem [of AIDS] so boldly really impressed me,” he said.

After meeting Bronson, Welch proposed the exhibition to the National Gallery, which had been the first institution to purchase works by General Idea, but had never held a retrospective. Welch thinks homophobia played a role in the gallery’s inability to recognize the brilliance of what General Idea had achieved. “Historically,” he said, “we have been a more conservative museum,” recognizing that times are changing.

Gold sign against a marble background with the text

General idea, Homeless sign for Trump Tower1989.

©General Idea/Photo Art Gallery of Ontario/Mario J. Palumbo Collection

Welch observed that the group was thinking about mutation before HIV and long before Covid. It’s as if the work predicted our obsession with reusing and disseminating imagery. Welch observed that Bronson is a big fan of social media, which seems a natural path in light of artistic practice. “Can you imagine General Idea on TikTok? Welch asked.

Partz and Zontal did not live to see how their practice would predict life in the 21st century. Both died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1994, although they continued to work until the end. “They knew their time was limited,” Welch said, “and they wanted to secure a legacy.”

The work from this time references their experiences as their health declined. Pharma©opia (1992) is an installation of AZT capsules (the drug that was developed to treat AIDS). magic bulletmade the same year, features pill-shaped helium-filled Mylar balloons – the Andy Warhol reference silver clouds and the similarities to Jeff Koons’ glowing dogs are unmistakable – which float until the helium runs out and they fall to the ground. As Welch stated in the exhibition catalog, “the balloons transform from a gallery installation into a multiple, an act of dissemination and memory”.

Looking back on the band’s early days, Bronson recalled, “We never did anything without the three of us agreeing, which means there’s a lot of stuff we never did.” Despite this principle, the current exhibition shows how prolific they were. They first predicted that they would continue to work together until 1984, then part ways. “But at that time, it was a bad habit,” Bronson said. The year 1984 came and went, and General Idea kept flying, resulting in a rich collection of masterful works.