One of the most influential groups of Canadian artists, General Idea typified the irreverent wit that swirled within the art and culture of the country throughout the late 20th-century. Decidedly anti-establishment and brimming with both social critique and playfulness, the collective trio were an icon for queer culture that wielded the veneer of consumerist culture. At the start of next month, the National Gallery of Canada will be honouring General Idea with their most extensive retrospective ever.
Composed of three Canadian artists Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, and AA Bronson, General Idea rooted itself firmly geographically and culturally in Toronto and New York from 1969 to 1994. They were pioneers and prominent influencers in the spheres of conceptual and installation art, utilizing iconic images of modern life—such as drugs, advertisements, kink culture, and television—to hold a twisted mirror up to society. From their 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant where people of any gender could be candidates, to their massive display of stark blue and white pills in the installation One Year of AZT, to their strikingly ambivalent and poignant series AIDS, a send-up of Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE; the works of General Idea lampooned, they challenged, and they inspired.
Tragically, two-thirds of the group passed in 1994—Partz and Zontal died of complications from AIDS. In many ways, the works that General Idea was creating towards this bitter end of the group were injected with the most personal quality of their art. Unabashedly bringing the struggles that their community and they themselves faced with the likes of One Year of AZT and AIDS, the group’s insistence—as well as their playfulness, visible in pieces such as Playing Doctor—did not diminish in the slightest when faced with the terrifying epidemic. Many parallels can be drawn between their work and Andy Warhol’s at the time, but General Idea, as always, was unafraid to wear their identity on their sleeves and embrace the queer community through their work.
The General Idea archive has resided in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada for some time, and the NGC’s retrospective aims to dive deep into the works of this truly iconic trio. Encompassing over 200 works spanning their two and a half decades together, it will combine “major installations as well as publications, videos, drawings, paintings, sculptures and archival material”. In accompaniment, there is a new 756-page book entitled GENERAL IDEA which explores the works of the collection and the collective at large. The gallery is also holding the General Idea Symposium on June 4th to explore with scholars the influence of General Idea.
General Idea was the exact sort of force that modern art should be—biting, clever, and emotionally honest. They honed in on aspects of popular culture closer than any of us are meant to, and in doing so they found gold. Self-mythology, celebrity, and wily self-promotion made the trio icons before anyone had even realized it—and now the National Gallery of Canada can help entire new generations of artists realize it too.