Beginning in Toronto in 1969, General Idea was an ongoing multidisciplinary artistic collaboration between AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal that continued until Partz and Zontal’s AIDS-related deaths in 1994. Along the way, General Idea became internationally famed for their innovative work—a renown that’s surged this spring with the world premiere of the group’s first career-long retrospective, “Haute Culture,” at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris (MAM).
This week, “Haute Culture” opens its sole North American showing at its partner venue, the Art Gallery of Ontario. The exhibition brings together some of General Idea’s best-known works, like a 1989 AIDS sculpture, with some pieces not seen for more than 25 years, including a newly discovered video of a 1971 performance in the AGO’s Walker Court.
Here, Canadian Art editorial resident Tess Edmonson discusses the retrospective with General Idea’s lone surviving member, AA Bronson.
Tess Edmonson: It’s interesting to see General Idea’s work contextualized against its relationship to the city of Toronto. What was the art scene like in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Toronto when General Idea began making work?
AA Bronson: There was nothing. Really. And of course there was no alternative art scene, there was no countercultural art scene at that time. On the other hand, there was this very rapidly growing underground theatre movement that was extremely alive and healthy. And also the small press scene here, especially Coach House Press, but other presses as well, was also really lively and kicking with lots going on. Poets, Allen Ginsberg and people like that, were coming through town and publishing here. The music scene I think also was pretty good.
So with the music and theatre, with the whole countercultural scene being so strong, but no art, it created this kind of void that we could move into. We could be the art scene. So those were the audiences we spoke to at the beginning. We were talking to the theatre audience and the music audience and the literary audience, not to an art audience. And the 1971 [Miss General Idea] Pageant, for example, which we did here at the AGO, was crammed with people but not that many of them were artists or from the art world. There were an awful lot of writers and theatre people and stuff like that. So we specialized in the beginning in building our own audience because there wasn’t an audience.
TE: And what is General Idea’s history with the AGO?
AAB: It’s long and complicated. I’m not sure if it was ’69 or ’70, we did a performance piece in the lobby during the opening of a show called “The New Alchemy” and it was an exhibition that was really the first of what I would call a “contemporary” show we had ever seen come to the AGO. There was a lot of early work by artists who would later come to be called “conceptual.” It was interesting; the Canadian curator came up to us as we were just beginning our performance, and he said, “I just want to let you know that it’s okay—you can do this.” It’s the oddest thing, you know? It was quite nice actually.
That was Dennis Young. Dennis Young and Mario Amaya were the curators in ’71 when we approached them about doing the Miss General Idea Pageant. They originally thought it would be a good project for what was then called the “Women’s Committee.” They saw it as some sort of fashion show spinoff thing. I don’t think they totally realized what they were getting into. Peggy Gale, who is now an independent curator, was actually one-half of the education department at that time. She was put in charge and she really made it happen. At a certain point when they realized how quirky it was and that it was not exactly what they had thought, they tried to withdraw from the show. But by then we had a contract for the pageant in writing so we just held them to their word. And the staff at the AGO at that time were great—they supported us in every possible way and really made it happen.
Then in ’75, Peggy Gale invited us back to do a kind of reprieve, to do a new version of the same thing: Going thru the Motions, which was this public rehearsal for the 1984 pageant.
The next thing after that was in ’85. I think it was actually called a retrospective at the time although it was 10 years before we finished producing work. That was organized along with the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands and the Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland. It was a really big kind of retrospective exhibition of the work to date.
In the early 1990s when Jorge and Felix were really sick, it became evident that they were going to die soon and that General Idea would end at that date. Because our work is so dense and integrated, and in a way you can’t really understand it unless you have a kind of complete collection of it, we approached the AGO about being the repository for a big collection of General Idea work. It seemed the most appropriate place and felt like a security then. Philip [Monk] worked very hard to put that together. There was work that we donated, there was work that the AGO purchased, the Women’s Committee purchased work, some of the board purchased work and it was all assembled into this big collection. The first segment of it, the Armory, was exhibited under Philip Monk. After Felix and Jorge died, when the AGO was under Jessica Bradley who had replaced Philip, there was an exhibition of the very early works.
It’s been a kind of sparring relationship; the relationship hasn’t always been the best despite the fact that we’ve done so much here. So it’s kind of an odd relationship that way.
The General Idea archive they really wanted to have here but we sent it up to the National Gallery of Canada. In that case, it’s very simple, they just don’t have enough staff, or the budget, to look after an archive of that scale and density and to make it accessible to researchers.
TE: What was the genesis, then, for working with the Musee d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris?
AAB: Well, it really was Frédéric Bonnet, the curator. I don’t exactly understand how the academic system works in France, but he basically did his thesis on General Idea 15 years ago or something like that. So he came to Toronto, and that’s how we met him. He came and did research here for a month—lived here for a month in the dead of winter. It must have been terrifying for him! And then we kept in touch and he had this idea for an exhibition, way back when he was working on his thesis. Essentially the structure of the exhibition is the structure of his thesis. He’s been trying to produce it ever since and it just took time before finally someone stepped forward and said, “Yes, I’d like to do this.”
France is a kind of strange thing. General Idea’s had more support and exhibitions in France than in any other country by far. We were taught in the schools way in advance of being taught anywhere else. We’ve influenced generations of French artists. I don’t know how that happened or why, but we somehow worked in the French context even though we’re speaking English and even though we’re using so much language. So the MAM has actually been wanting to do something with General Idea for a long time, but they always tended to come into the picture too late. With the exhibition that came here in ’85, they tried to get that but they came in far too late and there wasn’t a space in the exhibition schedule, for example. So it finally came about and it’s kind of the natural home for a show like that, first of all because of our French connection, but also within the Parisian milieu, the MAM has the most adventuresome exhibition schedule of all the museums.
TE: Do you think Frédéric Bonnet, as a curator outside of Canada, brings a new perspective to the work?
AAB: Yeah, and I think that’s really interesting. He has a really deep knowledge of the work and I think it shows in the way that he’s put things together, the kinds of networks of relationships that he builds up, and how he hangs works. I think it’s really great, really kind of vivacious, almost, and smart.
TE: How do you feel about his decision to arrange the exhibition thematically rather than chronologically?
AAB: I’m the one who’s usually the control freak with General Idea exhibitions and I tend to work chronologically. At the beginning of this show, when the MAM first said they were interested, talking to Frédéric, I realized that this was really his baby, and that I really needed to stand back and let him do his thing in a way I had never done before. It certainly paid off.
TE: Given General Idea’s international reputation, it seems bizarre that there hasn’t been a comprehensive retrospective already.
AAB: Well, there was one planned. Diana Nemiroff, when she was the curator at the National Gallery of Canada, was planning one, but Pierre Théberge came in as the director and cancelled it.
TE: One advantage to the retrospective occurring a bit later might be that a new generation of audience and artists are able to see the work for the first time. I feel like General Idea’s work is popular especially with younger people, like it’s found a renewed resonance.
AAB: In Paris, there were a huge number of people under the age of 35 coming to see the exhibition—it was really dominated by young people. That was delightful for me to see. From my point of view, I’m thrilled that the work still looks fresh.