Published  28/04/2023

General Idea

General Idea

An elephantine retrospective captures the madcap antics and media theorising of the pioneering Canadian conceptualists

General Idea, Nazi Milk, 1979/1990. Gaby and Wilhelm Schürmann Collection, Herzogenrath, Germany. © General Idea. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.

Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
1 April – 16 July 2023


Pity the curator who has to convene a retrospective of General Idea. The Canadian collective, active between 1967 and 1994, existed in a flurry of happenings, performances, conference calls, handwritten notes, videos, letters and printed ephemera. It founded File magazine, an echo of Life that served as an indiscernible chronicle of avant-garde activities. It ran a beauty pageant in which each participant wore the same dress. Then, for a prospective future second edition, it created architectural models, installations and talismans, before destroying the pageant’s pavilion seven years before it was slated to take place. It then sold pieces of the ostensible ruin. Even when it turned to object-based artworks, it worked within a string of self-references, call-backs and flash forwards, tying everything together.

General Idea, INFE©TED Mondrian #7, 1994. Collection Drs. Chung-Wai Chow anf John R. Wright. INFE©TED Mondrian #3, 1994. Collection James Brenzel and Lisa Dinnick. INFE©TED Mondrian #2, 1994. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, acquired with the generous support of the Mondrian Fund and the International Collector Circle and Curator Circle of the Stedelijk Museum Fonds, 2019. © General Idea. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.

Now, work from the complete span of General Idea’s existence has been gathered at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum for an exhibition that manages to capture the collective’s multifarious practice and madcap essence. The exhibition was previously presented at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The Stedelijk is an equally fitting venue. It was the first museum to collect General Idea and exhibit its work. Since 2018 it has housed a major archive. And, late in the collective’s career, it created “infected” versions of Piet Mondrian paintings and Gerrit Rietveld chairs, identical copies but for a change of colours. This retrospective is thus a sort of second homecoming.

General Idea, P is for Poodle, 1983/89. Royal Bank of Canada. © General Idea Photo: General Idea Archives, Berlin, courtesy the artist.

General Idea was the creation of three artists, working under pseudonyms: AA Bronson (b1946), Felix Partz (1945-94) and Jorge Zontal (1944-94). They came together in 1969 in Toronto as part of a countercultural scene based around Rochdale College, an experiment in alternative education, and the alternative theatre Passe Muraille, where plays were produced through a process of collective creation. Together, the three moved into a house, which became the first General Idea headquarters. The collective had a larger, and looser membership at first. But gradually membership solidified as a trio. They would work together until 1994, when Partz and Zontal both died from Aids-related illnesses.

Their perspective on art was influenced by Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian theorist who advocated for the study of popular culture and contemporary media. They were also concerned with Andy Warhol, both for his engagement with commercial culture and his use of editions and multiples. In 1967, Partz had photocopied an image of Warhol’s screen prints of soup cans; later on, General Idea would reincarnate these cans as sculptures, rematerialising that which Warhol had flattened. 

General Idea, The Armoury of The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion. Art Gallery of Ontario, gift from the Volunteer Committee Fund, 1990. © General Idea. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.

The output of the collective’s early years is especially multifarious. Between 1969 and 1973 alone, it came up with a frenzy of ideas that would prove prescient over decades of conceptual art. Perhaps inspired by the 1964 pop art group show The American Supermarket, in which artists created objects that resembled groceries, General Idea created a series of “boutiques”, installations that functioned as shops. At The Belly Store (1969), Zontal presided over bottles of something called George Saia’s Belly Food, propped up in pyramids like soup tins. Later, it would open its own real shop and centre for artist-created editions, Art Metropole, which still operates in Toronto.

This interest in re-enacting commercialism was joined by an interest in textural ephemera. In 1971, Bronson travelled from Toronto to Vancouver carrying a snakeskin photo album containing depictions of General Idea’s early artworks. He stopped off at museums along the route, playing the role of a travelling salesman attempting to sell an exhibition. In 1972, the collective mailed out a document calling itself a work of art to prominent museums and collectors, then printed a certificate listing all the prestigious recipients that had thusly “collected” its work.

General Idea, Fruits de Mer, 1992 – 1994. Courtesy the artist. © General Idea. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.

General Idea was prolific in mail art, with a particular line in soliciting and gathering responses from others. Manipulating the Self (1970) saw participants send in images of themselves in a strange position, their hand clasping their own mouth in reference to the Gestalt psychotherapy of “holding and being held”. The same year, it distributed Orgasm Energy Charts, a simple questionnaire tracking the occurrence of orgasms by date and time; a self-published press release contains samples of Bronson’s own responses. Art became participatory.

General Idea, Magi© Bullet and Magi© Carpet, 1992. Hartwig Art Foundation. Promised gift to the Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed / Rijkscollectie. © General Idea. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.

As well as letters, it wrote dozens of index cards containing prompts for future actions. Displayed at the Stedelijk, these little rectangles of lined paper become artworks in their own right. Only a handful were released, but the cards conjure up a world of antic possibilities, waiting to be activated by performers. For one prospective event: “Pieces of cheese are stolen. They are served with fruit, on large platters, ceremoniously.” Another dictates: “For one minute, turn off your eyes and turn on your ears. Listen. What do you hear? Make a list and send it to a friend. Transform this into a chain letter.”

General Idea, Fin de Siècle, 1990. Graci Collection. © General Idea. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.

This ferment of activity was gradually replaced by a tsunami of objects and artworks. They, or the formation of their collective identity as General Idea, gradually came to stand at the centre of their work. They posed for portraits as architects, doctors and graduates. They created their own heraldic shields and chose their own signature colours, cribbed from the pop artist Robert Indiana’s Love series. And they made works featuring three seal pups, which became an animal surrogate for their human forms. Another was provided by pastels of poodles, sometimes designed to look like archaic fragments and other times like the neo-expressionist paintings popular at the time. These are often engaged in sexual acts, placing unashamed queer sexuality in an art gallery at a time when it was concealed from view.

General Idea, AIDS, 1988. Art Gallery of Ontario, gift of Robert and Lynn Simpson, 1997. © General Idea. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.

Once General Idea had set upon its coterie of images, it would endlessly iterate. It created merchandise: the seal pups appeared as bars of soap and beer mats. Similar ideas would inform its ultimate, most controversial work, the Imagevirus campaign. In 1987, a few years before Partz and Zontal were diagnosed with HIV, the group painted a piece that took Indiana’s Love motif and replaced it with Aids. It then reproduced this on hundreds of posters in New York and San Francisco, while producing more and more work that replicated the motif.

Over the next couple of years, the image spread, appearing on everything from electric billboards to tram carriages (General Idea duly photographed these appearances and turned them into new posters). Reaction was mixed. It was accused of trivialising the crisis, using irony when great seriousness was needed and deadening the power of the acronym. But it was too late. General Idea had gone viral, lodging its image and Aids in the mind of an urban public. For artists transfixed by the power of mass media, it was an extraordinary achievement, albeit a bittersweet one.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2024 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA