For 25 years, the trio of artists known as General Idea labored in a phantom parallel universe, one they made by creating its residue: relics, heraldry, shopping bags, even a “mass-market” magazine. Their ongoing project and obsession—the Miss General Idea Pageant, and a pavilion in which to stage it—were their metaphors for the art world, meant to mock yet infiltrate the system. Miss Idea’s theoretical catwalk was a long slippery bridge between Fluxus playfulness and postmodern critique. It’s possible to see connections now to other artists either building mythologies (Matthew Barney) or taking them apart (culture jammers). Who knows what General Idea might have been on to by now.
The group dissolved in 1994 when artists Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz both died of AIDS, but General Idea maintained a certain subversive zest right to the end. A major retrospective is about to begin touring, its New York destination as yet unresolved, but a current show at Printed Matter offers a preview of coming attractions with over 80 works.
Writing about General Idea never focuses on the bond the artists had, probably because the work was never about their relationship, despite the constant self-portraiture. They were always in disguise, right down to their pseudonyms. Yet this was a marriage of three minds. Zontal, Partz, and AA Bronson began to live and work together in Toronto in 1969, adopted the General Idea tag in 1970, and made a commitment to each other in 1971: They would stay together until 1984. Of course, that year came and went without offering a reason to end the collaboration. They were one of those art world units, like the Kipper Kids or Gilbert & George, who seemed more than the sum of their parts.
For their running commentary on the artifices of the art world, General Idea used lighter-than-air, often fey, iconography—poodles, cocktails, TV test patterns, dollar signs. They were obsessed with available form, “culture’s forgotten shells,” which they could reinscribe. That same methodology was applied in grimmer times to their most overtly political and best-known work: They appropriated Robert Indiana’s LOVE icon from the ’60s and turned it into an AIDS icon for the ’80s.
The impulse to refill empty symbols with new content drew them to the beauty pageant format, with its cornucopia of pointless ritual. Here was a perfect illustration of the art world’s constant need to find new stars and new product. General Idea staged just two actual pageants, in 1970 and ’71, but claimed that they had crowned two queens previously, in secret ceremonies. (Thus, past winners were available for a “relinquishing the crown” sequence.) The 1970 winner (Miss Honey) wore a pink peau de soie gown and worked a telex machine to demonstrate her talent. All the other contestants wore bear costumes. The next year’s ceremony was much more elaborate, right down to arriving limousines, and this time the winner was a man (Marcel Dot) selected for “capturing ‘glamour’ without falling into it.”
Though the artists continued to stage pageant events after 1971, they always described them as mere practice for some ultimate future contest. In the final rehearsal (1975), contestants wore ziggurats made of venetian blinds, concealing all but a theoretical beauty. Then in 1977, the “pavilion” burned. The artists cancelled the pageant which they’d scheduled for 1984, always weightier as a symbol than as an actual year. Almost until the end, General Idea was both excavating the pavilion’s ruins and designing its rooms: an armory lined with chenille crests (but no weapons), a cocktail lounge, a night school, a stable for their poodles.
Ironically, the artists developed a notion of their work as a virus, beginning in 1972 when they first published File, described in one issue as “a magazine playing the part of a magazine.” Its cover format looked exactly like the old Life—until Life sued.
“We saw File as a virus put into the newsstands,” says Bronson. “It created this sense of familiarity, almost of safety, and people would pick it up unwittingly, not knowing that they would be infected with new ideas.”
Early issues focused on mind-expanding, if whimsical, artists’ projects emerging from the mail art scene: like coverage of Mr. Peanut’s (Vincent Trasov) visit to Toronto with the New York Corres Sponge Dance School. By the time General Idea stopped publishing in 1989, however, the tone of the publication had changed dramatically, thanks largely to the AIDS crisis. Parody and irony were insufficient in the face of “The New Mortality,” the subject of a 1987 issue steeped in melancholia.
That was the year they developed the “AIDS” logo. “With the AIDS work,” says Bronson, “we took all the strategies we’d learned over the years and put them to work creating an image that could act as a virus and infiltrate the mass media. Because that was a time when AIDS wasn’t being talked about. So the ‘AIDS’ logo became a publicity campaign for a disease, weirdly enough. We hoped that we would lose the copyright the way Indiana lost his copyright [on ‘LOVE’]. We hoped that people would steal it and use it.”
Bronson says that up until queer theory came along, General Idea had always been perceived in the gay world as politically incorrect. Flaunting their poodles, as it were. (“Did you own a poodle?” “No. Didn’t really like them.”) Of course, by placing them on shields and flags, they’d made the effete and the sissified into symbols of strength.
After Partz and Zontal were diagnosed in ’89 and ’90, General Idea began working with pharmacology images—rooms filled with pills. And they created Fin de Siècle, an installation representing the artists as three baby white seals in a sea of 300 Styrofoam ice floes. “Seeing ourselves as victims,” says Bronson, another politically incorrect idea they decided to embrace.
Zontal (born Slobodan Saia-Levy) died in February of ’94 and Partz (born Ronald Gabe) died that June. The three had rented a penthouse in Toronto in which to spend these last months together, and Bronson describes it as a scene of feverish art activity. If his friends were too weak to work, they could still make decisions. With characteristic wit, they churned out, for example, a series of “infected Mondrians” (replacing all yellows with green, a color Mondrian hated).
About a week before he died, Zontal asked Bronson to take his picture. Zontal wanted to document the fact that he looked as his father had the day he was released from Auschwitz. Four months later, Bronson decided to photograph Partz a few hours after his death. He’s sitting in bed, his favorite things around him. His body was so wasted he did not have enough flesh left to close his eyes. For five years, Bronson (born Michael Tims) did not make anything, “and when I started, I realized I had to start from their deaths.” His photo of Partz, in a huge blowup, appeared at the last Whitney Biennial.
Bronson says General Idea was one organism, one mind, one nervous system, and now, like a stroke victim, he must learn to function without that extended body. A photo on the wall of his West Village apartment shows him suspended, life- size, like the “hanged man” from the tarot deck. “All I can do now is wait for this time to pass to see what I might do with my life. I’m still in the aftermath of General Idea.”