“This is the way we are, Felix and Jorge and I, in 1975. We portray ourselves for the first time as a group of three, as three men. Gone is the fluid family of seven or eight collaborators: Mimi leaves and the rest follow. Now we are three. Like Three Blind Mice, like Huey, Dewey and Louie, like The Three Musketeers. Now we are three.
Here we are then, as three architects, three men facing the future, no, constructing a future, equipped with the Dada Sawing Blade by Robert Fones, the Hand of the Spirit, the 1984 Spirit
of Miss General Idea Vehicle in the background. Felix holds the silver foreman’s helmet from our performance Going Thru the Motions. We are not only architects of course; we are shapeshifters. We take whatever form our tripled queer masculinity needs to take: a coven of poodles, a love
triangle of babies, a theatre of doctors. Three heads are better than one.
We made this portrait in 1975 for the Glamour Issue of our FILE Megazine, in which we declare our throuple intention: we are one.”
— AA Bronson, February 2023
In March 1971, AA Bronson travelled from Toronto to Vancouver, stopping at various museums along the way. He carried a snakeskin covered photo album with him that contained pictures of General Idea’s earliest artworks. With the binder, Bronson perfor med the role of a travelling salesperson, but instead of commercial goods he was selling an exhibition. Although the exhibition never happened, the album provided General Idea with an opportunity to write their own history.
General Idea’s early projects were experimental in nature and drew on strategies of conceptual art, performance and mail art, all of which were circulating freely in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Taking the form of pamphlets, instructions, audio recordings and photographs, these artworks introduced many of the themes they would revisit over the following years. Networking across borders, running a shop out of their house and performing with their bodies, General Idea set out to rethink available formats in art and society that were at their disposal.
Throughout the 1970s, many of General Idea’s performances drew inspiration from massmedia spectacle and television tropes, in particular the beauty pageant. These largescale, collaborative performances included judges, contestants, musical acts and prizes, and were recorded in front of live audiences. Consisting of members of the local art scene, these audiences were in on the act.
The artists staged two pageants, in 1970 and 1971, then planned for the next to be held in the distant future, inspired by George Orwell’s novel 1984. They prepared for this with a series of five “audience rehearsals”, training spectators’ reactions for the ultimate event. The group’s pageants and rehearsals parodied popular culture and borrowed heavily from television clichés. They arguably anti cipated reality television, both its competitive and nonsensical characteristics. After all, the artists wanted to be famous.
Works from the Going Thru the Notions series were first shown in the breakthrough exhibition from 1975 organised by Carmen Lamanna, General Idea’s principal art dealer at the time. Going Thru the Notions further developed The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion, an imaginary building to host the group’s 1984 beauty pageant. The exhibition announced the artists’ ambitious plans and explained their longterm project to Toronto audiences.
Adopting the role of architects, General Idea presented various blueprints for The Pavillion, including 1,984 audience seats, mirrored window coverings and a colonnade. The Pavillion freely mixed the grandeur of antiquity with modernist, internationalstyle architecture and sexual iconography – for instance, in the image of a naked man wrapped around each of the leopardprint columns lining an endless hall. General Idea’s fictional pavilion would ultimately contain many more rooms. Over the next decade, the group conceived numerous artworks as parts of the building.
By the 1980s, consumerism and a culture of excess were flourishing. General Idea arguably had long anticipated this mixture of art and commerce. Channelling this spirit, the artists focused on making editions: lowcost artworks that exist in multiple copies. This interest in the art market led them to adopt the role of salespeople, enacting the performance of capitalism in everyday life.
The decade’s preoccupation with brands led General Idea to take up the copyright symbol (itself uncopyrightable), corporate logos and mocktelevision advertisements, all in line with the 1980s commercial culture. They created several versions of boutiques like the General Idea’s ¥en Boutique (1989) and Boutique Coeurs Volants (1994/2001), which served as stores for their fictional pavilion and various projects.
After General Idea’s fictional Pavillion burned to the ground in 1977, nothing remained but a few “hastily rescued artefacts”. These remnants determined the next period in the group’s practice. While, in the 1970s, General Idea assumed the role of architects, in the 1980s they became archaeologists. These relics purposely look fake – pastel poodles clearly do not belong on ancient fragments. General Idea were making fauxrelics, unearthing their own works of art.
Following the group’s first solo museum exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 1979, their attention turned even more acutely to the museum’s role in the art world. These objects anticipated their own research and display by institutions. Crescent moons, cornucopias or horns of plenty, poodles, cocktail glasses, veils, ziggurats and skulls all appear as remnants of a complex society, alluding to rituals that are now lost.
After performance and conceptual art in the 1970s, painting was seen by many in the art world as a conservative medium pandering to the market: paintings were easy to sell. Engaging in these debates, General Idea used painting subversively, working with a traditional format to carry provocative content.
Their Mondo Cane paintings – featuring orgiastic fluorescent poodles in various sexual positions – reference Frank Stella’s Protractor paintings from the late 1960s. Stella’s work was purely geometric, whereas General Idea turned to figurative painting with allusions to sexuality. As watchdogs, retrievers and gay companions, the poodles might also be understood as avatars for the artists themselves.
In 1986, General Idea moved from Toronto to New York. Having achieved success in Europe, they relocated to make it easier to keep in touch with international dealers, curators and collectors. Just as their art star was rising, they found New York’s queer community in a state of crisis. Confronted by the AIDS epidemic devas tating the city, in June 1987 they made their first painting based on Pop artist Robert Indiana’s LOVE (1964). They substituted the four letters of Indiana’s work with the word “AIDS” – much as they had adapted LIFE as FILE Megazine in 1972.
The IMAGEVIRUS project achieved its greatest visibility and impact, not, however, as a painting in a gallery, but as posters, billboards and animations on the street. “Injected into the lifeblood of the communication, advertising and transportation systems,” AA Bronson later wrote, it “spread, viruslike through the public realm.” It remains one of the group’s most visible and expansive projects. These works were nearly all realised before Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal were diagnosed with HIV: Partz likely learned about his positive status in January 1990 and Zontal later that same year.
More than 1,000 sheets of expanded polystyrene foam transform the atrium into a landscape of breaking ice. Returning once again to the idea of the trio – poodles, babies and architects – General Idea have set three fake harp seal pups adrift in a frozen landscape: “a seascape of total snowblind white. A vast and moving island mirage of jagged icefloes ... a trio of white baby harp seals ... like refrigerated amphibious snowy poodles.”
Among the group’s most complex installations, this work has been interpreted in various ways since it was first shown. At the time it was made, model, actress and activist Brigitte Bardot’s international campaign to end baby seal hunting was still present in the public imagination. There was little sympathy however for those living with HIV. This work purposely combines these very different causes, asking which lives are worth protecting.
After this exhibition, the polystyrene will be fully recycled and made into new sheets.
Conceived for an exhibition in New York in 1992, these artworks appropriate the practice of two
different postwar artists from the US: Dan Flavin and Andy Warhol. During the early 1990s, General Idea often made these kinds of arthistorical references – homage and parody in equal measure. Magi© Carpet evokes Dan Flavin’s artworks, which are made entirely from fluorescent light fixtures. Magi© Bullet references Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds (1966) and consists of hundreds of helium filled foil balloons in the shape of shiny silver pills. Over time, the balloons deflate and sink to the ground, transforming a singular work into hundreds of multiples.
The ballons lying on the ground can be picked up.
“Our life was full of pills,” AA Bronson recalled of the early 1990s, “so they became part of our work.” At first, General Idea made a set of three pillshaped sculptures named after the drugs Amoxicillin, Bacampicillin and Carbenicillin. The pills kept replicating in various works near the end of General Idea’s practice.
One Month of AZT (1991) is a reference to the first antiviral drug prescribed to HIV/AIDS patients, which Felix Partz was taking, and represents his monthly dosage: 150 pills, which he called his “little helpers”.
Today’s forms of treatment can drastically change the experience of living with HIV – for those with access to health care. The viral load can be medicinally lowered to a point of no longer being detectable in the body, which also makes the virus untransmittable. U=U (undetectable = untransmittable) has become an important message for destigmatising communi ties living with and affected by HIV. Furthermore, recently developed safer sex methods like the taking of PrEP effectively expand the measurements for preventing an HIV-infection.
In 1993, General Idea moved from New York back to Toronto. As Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal became sicker, the group dedicated themselves to “infecting” the work of other artists. Although General Idea had always engaged with the art canon of recent decades, citing the artwork of others became the dominant strategy in their last years together. Best known are the group’s replicas of Piet Mondrian paintings from 1921–1930, based on reproductions found in classic arthistory books. Turning away from the large gallery installations and public projects that had
characterised their earlier practice, General Idea started working on a smaller scale.
As COVID19 has radically reshaped lives over the past few years, these works insist on the fact that HIV and AIDS, too, are still very much present. The deaths of Partz and Zontal brought General Idea to an end in 1994.
The ziggurat motif has shaped General Idea’s work for decades. Originating in ancient temple architecture and weaving traditions, the form is part of many historic visual languages. During the postwar period in North America, pictures of CEOs overlooking ziggurat monuments flooded the covers of business magazines. The shape often symbolises technological progress as well as the urge to build and create.
Felix Partz began painting ziggurats in 1968, the year General Idea was founded. By linking the ziggurat to the body, General Idea’s architectural V.B. Gown costumes draw attention to the constructed nature of identity and gender. The group’s extensive engagement with the shape examined its functions as a presentation space and a symbol of power. AA Bronson explains: “The 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant was a platform produced on a platform of ziggurats.”
Selfportraits were an important tool in General Idea’s effort to construct their shared identity. The artists were always depicted as a group of three, the number became a symbol of their unity and a recurring element in their work.
In the photographic Three Men Series, the artists depict themselves as poodles, babies, graduates, seals and doctors, demonstrating the mutability of their image. Heavy editing and staged poses reveal the portraits as highly manufactured – identity does not manifest itself naturally but is curated and produced like the cover of a magazine. In constructing their identity, General Idea employ signifiers of glamour as a strategy from the fashion world and beauty pageants. The collective interprets glamour as a “tool of invasion” that grants easy access to fame and fortune. They figured that glamourous artists would not have to be talented, as they can maintain their relevance through myth and manipulation.