The National Gallery of Canada (NGC) presents the most comprehensive retrospective exhibition of General Idea to date, on now until November 20, 2022.

Challenging both the art world and the world at large, General Idea (1969–1994) remains one of the most influential artists to have emerged from Canada. Together, Felix Partz (1945–1994), Jorge Zontal (1944–1994) and AA Bronson (b. 1946) invented a ground-breaking practice that spanned more than twenty-five years. The collective was formed as part of 1960s counterculture, General Idea was a radical artist group founded in Toronto by AA Bronson/ Together they invented a ground-breaking and provocative multi-disciplinary practice that challenged social and artistic norms, and altered the development of postwar art over the course of 25 years – from the group’s formation in 1969 to the deaths in 1994 of both Partz and Zontal from AIDS-related illnesses.

This major retrospective of General Idea will bring together more than 200 works, including installations, painting, drawing, video, sculpture, publications and archival material, to explore the crucial role General Idea played in the development of art and activism in Canada, the United States and Europe. The exhibition will also chart General Idea’s influence on future generations of creators, informing new ways of reimagining and changing our world through art.

Known for their anti-establishment outlook and their early involvement in punk, queer theory and AIDS activism, General Idea critiqued consumer culture and social inequities in their work, examining mass media, the art economy, queer identity and the AIDS crisis. Organized chronologically, the exhibition will examine General Idea’s total approach to art-making, showing they were artists, performers, architects, publishers, shopkeepers, anthropologists and more.

General Idea frequently borrowed from mass media and advertising, harnessing humour and parody to probe the production, circulation and consumption of images and culture. Much of this satirical work prefigured current concerns surrounding social media and image distribution. They were known for their prolific production of low-cost multiples and in the 1970s they used faux-beauty pageants to satirize the glamour and consumerism of the contemporary art world. The 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant (1971) involved real submissions from artists and culminated in an elaborate awards ceremony.

From 1975 to 1984, General Idea produced a series of works focused on The Miss General Idea Pavillion, a fictional edifice intended to house the ultimate Miss General Idea pageant. Conceived as a decentralized museum, its fragments located in institutions around the world, the fictional Pavillion would comment on the structure of the art world, deconstructing the myths surrounding museums, archives and artifacts.

In the 1970s General Idea founded two important institutions which attest to their vital place in the history of independent publishing and artist-run culture. FILE Megazine (1972–1989), was a periodical which appropriated the format of LIFE magazine and whose first subscribers included Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol. Art Metropole was a publishing and exhibition platform that has been selling and distributing artists’ books, audio, video and multiples in Toronto since 1974. 

From 1987 to 1994, General Idea’s work responded to the AIDS crisis. Appropriating Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE series, they made their own logo substituting the word “AIDS.” Initially a painting, they later produced an animation for the Spectacolor Board in New York’s Times Square and created poster campaigns that spanned cities from San Francisco to Berlin. A 1989 sculptural iteration of this IMAGEVIRUS series is on display on the Plaza of the National Gallery of Canada, and its graffitied surface invites audiences to mark its surface. Also from this period, the exhibition will include the major installation Pharma©opia (1992 in which three large-scale pills float in the air above visitors. This work was originally designed for Las Ramblas in Barcelona, described by Bronson as a ‘warning’ because the AIDS crisis had yet to impact Spain.

The exhibition is curated by Adam Welch, Ph.D., Associate Curator of Canadian Art, NGC, with the close collaboration of AA Bronson. The exhibition will be accompanied by a major new publication which will stand as the definitive resource on General Idea. The 756-page publication will explore their performances and actions, their work on city streets, and their work in museums and galleries. Edited by Adam Welch and designed by Garrick Gott, it includes a preface by AA Bronson, a conversation between Bronson and curator Beatrix Ruf, and contributions from leading voices on contemporary art and its intersections with literature, commerce, and activism.

General Idea has had more than 100 solo exhibitions, and countless group exhibitions internationally, and has produced a wide range of public art projects. The group was awarded the Bell Canada Award in Video Art in 2001, The Governor General’s Visual Art and Media Award in 2002, and the Skowhegan Medal in Multimedia in 2006.

This exhibition will tour to the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and another European venue in 2023.


About the Author

Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.