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AIDS, 1987.Blondeau & Cie/General Idea

As the National Gallery of Canada unveils the definitive retrospective of the seminal Toronto artist collective General Idea – more than 200 works covering 25 years – The Globe and Mail offers a crash course in G.I. for those struggling to recall the counter culture of the 1970s or postmodern memes of the 1980s.

Who

Three men once known as Slobodan Saia-Levi, Ronald Gabe and Michael Tims met up on Toronto’s lively underground scene in 1969 and became part of a loose collective that included several other creators and performers.

The peripatetic Saia-Levi was the child of Yugoslav Holocaust survivors who had grown up in Venezuela and studied architecture at Dalhousie University in Halifax. There, he also experimented with film and theatre, before visiting Vancouver where he briefly met Tims.

Gabe was a Winnipegger who studied fine art at the University of Manitoba and travelled on a Canada Council grant to Europe and North Africa. On his return, he followed his then-girlfriend Mimi Paige to Toronto where she lived at Rochdale, the University of Toronto’s experimental student-run college.

The Three Graces (Mural Fragment from the Villa dei Misteri of The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion), 1982.Courtesy the artist / General Idea

Tims was her roommate. Born in Vancouver to a military family, he had dropped out of architecture school at the University of Manitoba to help establish a commune, a free school, a free store and a newspaper, before winding up in Toronto. There he again met Saia-Levi, who also went by the name George or Jorge Saia in those years, and was visiting Toronto hoping to make a film at Theatre Passe Muraille, a counter-culture hub.

At Paige’s suggestion, in the summer of 1969, these four along with actor Danny Freedman became roommates at 78 Gerrard Street, a house with a storefront window where they began to mount satirical displays, as well as making films. During this period, they gradually adopted the pseudonyms Jorge Zontal (sounds like horizontal), Felix Partz (who had created mail art under the name Private Partz) and AA Bronson, whose name was the result of a typographical error on an erotic novel he had co-written in 1970. Masters of disguise and double meanings, the trio were never known by their birth names again.

What

The group name, General Idea, with its echoes of corporate scope and bland ambiguity, was also an error. It dates to an early exhibition where the organizers mistook the title of a work as the group’s name, and it suited.

The three men, chief organizers of the collective’s activities, emerged as a single trio after 1973, as other members fell away and Zontal, Partz and Bronson made a commitment to work together until the ominous year 1984. Operating as a true collective in which no individual member was identified as the author of a work, their project was a sharp retort to the art world cult of the individual genius. And yet, the intriguing device of posing as shadowy characters veiled by a group identity was also a remarkably effective way of getting publicity.

As early as 1975, AA Bronson could announce in a much-quoted manifesto: “We wanted to be famous, glamorous and rich. That is to say we wanted to be artists and we knew that if we were famous and glamorous we could say we were artists and we would be.”

The group’s work began in the 1970s with mail art, films, an art magazine (FILE) and performances, exhibitions and documentation all looking forward to the 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant or excavating the fictional Miss General Idea Pavilion. In the 1980s, as raw expressionist painting made a comeback on the art scene, the group, always sharply cognizant of the cultural moment, retorted with its own slick paintings, as well as more multiples and photo-based work. The G.I. oeuvre was ironic and satirical, taking the forms of public entertainment and consumer goods to critique commerce, media and the art establishment.

Megazine, vol. 3, no. 1 (Glamour Issue), Autumn, 1975.Courtesy the artist / General Idea

When

A project conceived in the joyous rebelliousness of the late 1960s and flourishing on the dynamic Toronto arts scene of the 1970s changed its tone in the late 1980s as the AIDS epidemic took hold. It was then, as General Idea turned its attention to the AIDS crisis, sexuality and the pharmaceutical industry, that critical discussion began finally to articulate something the work had always implied: that the three men were gay.

“Before that, the work was more heavily coded,” said National Gallery curator Adam Welch, who has spent more than four years assembling the new retrospective. “But the early work is so campy: Miss GI is a non-binary dominatrix.”

In the 1980s, the artists’ self-portrait as chubby-cheeked babies or their paintings of fornicating poodles had made no secret of a queer esthetic, but the work after 1987, including the famous remake of Robert Indiana’s LOVE logo to spell AIDS and later sculptures based on Partz’s own doses of the antiretroviral drug AZT, was darker and unavoidable. Around 1990, both Partz and Zontal learned they were HIV-positive and died of complications from AIDS a few months apart in 1994. General Idea was no more and Bronson began a solo career.

Self-portrait with Objects, 1981–82.General Idea

Where

Although Zontal was new to Canada while Partz and Bronson both had roots in the West, it was the particular energy of do-it-yourself culture in Toronto in the 1970s that fed General Idea. It was a city without the massive visual art infrastructure of New York, which paradoxically gave the group space to emerge, yet sometimes failed to recognize its importance once it had.

From its early days, G.I. was accorded serious attention in Europe, including its first solo museum exhibition held at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam in 1979. Meanwhile, Canadian critics often took the art’s tongue-in-cheek tone as a reason not to analyze it too deeply.

As its international stature grew, G.I. made the inevitable move to New York in 1986, although Partz still spent much of his time in Toronto. The other two returned to the city in 1993 as Zontal and Partz’s health problems mounted. Today, Bronson is based in Berlin.

Why

General Idea’s 25-year art project was amusing, engaging and astute, both attune to its moment and prescient about the directions culture was moving. Continually outrunning the zeitgeist, the trio of queer pranksters took some of the largest ideas in cultural theory – such as postmodernism’s concern with borrowing and replication – and put them into practice to create a body of work that was both easily accessible and critically intelligent. Today, G.I.’s concerns with public engagement, social critique and a deadly pandemic seem as contemporary as ever.

General Idea shows at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa from June 3 to Nov. 20.