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Artist AA Bronson, last survivor of the avant-garde movement called General Idea, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, July 22, 2011. (Tim Fraser/Tim Fraser For The Globe and Mail)
Artist AA Bronson, last survivor of the avant-garde movement called General Idea, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, July 22, 2011. (Tim Fraser/Tim Fraser For The Globe and Mail)

Visual art

Paint, poodles, performance art - expect all this (and more) at General Idea retrospective Add to ...

"Basically," he said with a laugh, "we indulged in group therapy every morning over coffee. That's what it came down to. We structured our whole life as an artwork, in a sense, so that everything that happened in that structure had some sort of meaning."

Was it in any way a relief to be freed from this structure when Partz and Zontal died? No, Bronson replied. In fact, "it became more difficult to make decisions because I was so used to doing that by consensus. I wasn't quite sure how to do it by myself. Pretend the other two are sitting on my shoulders?"

To this day, neither Bronson nor any of his associates from back then can recall who came up with the G.I. moniker. "I think it was originally the name of a project that we were doing, that people misunderstood and thought it was us, so we just left it that."

The serendipity of misunderstanding also played a part in Bronson's own nom d'art. In 1970, while co-writing a porn novel that was subsequently "banned and seized by the police and burned," Bronson, or maybe the publisher, felt a nom de plume was in order andcame up with A.L. Bronson. The name was duly printed on the novel's cover but after it disappeared, "for some reason, everyone started calling me AA Bronson." The name stuck - so much so that it was "only 20 years later" that Bronson himself realized AA was a mistake, and that, in fact, his real fake name was A.L.

For convenience's sake, the history of General Idea tends to be divided into two parts. There's the pre-1987 period when the Boys explored "the idea of incorporating the commerce of art and the economy of the art world into the art itself."

Two major manifestations were the Miss General Idea Pageants (the first in 1970), at once a spoof of beauty contests and an allegorical rumination on hype, glamour, artistic creativity and the production of cultural value. The other was the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion, conceived in the early seventies as a never-to-be-realized building that instead became "a frame of reference" for all sorts of work, including architectural drawings and goofy objets d'art ostensibly destined for inclusion in the Pavillion.

Post 1987, G.I.'s creativity was galvanized by the HIV-AIDS epidemic. Invited to produce a work for a fundraiser hosted by the American Foundation for AIDS Research in New York, the trio came up with its now legendary appropriation of Robert Indiana's 1964 LOVE logo, using the letters AIDS instead. A painting at first, the logo soon went viral, as posters, billboards, stamps, wallpaper, lottery tickets, sculptures, even an electronic crawl above Manhattan's Times Square.

The irony, of course, is that the first logo pieces were produced before either Partz or Zontal tested HIV-positive. Once they did (Partz in 1989, Zontal a year later), the disease, in true G.I. fashion, consumed the trio's lives and artistic production, resulting, in 1991, in one of the troupe's signature works, One Year of AZT, a room-sized installation of the 1,825 anti-viral pills, reproduced as vacuum-formed styrene lozenges, that Felix Partz was taking.

Seventeen years after G.I.'s demise, Bronson confesses he's pleased that the AGO is hosting the trio's retrospective, even provocatively positioning one of its AIDS sculptures outside, near Henry Moore's Two Large Forms. The gallery, venue for many G.I. events and installations over its nearly three-decade career, now includes more than 400 G.I. artifacts in its permanent collection (close to 110 of them are in the retrospective).

At the same time, Bronson is, well … amused that Haute Culture is taking place there. "They're so focused - I don't know if I should say this in the interview - so focused on masterworks," he said, referring to the gallery's current show of Abstract Expressionist paintings elsewhere in the building, as well as upcoming exhibits of works by Chagall and Picasso.

G.I. arose, in part, in "opposition to the assertion of the discrete so-called masterpiece," as David Moos writes in the exhibition catalogue. Yet here's G.I. duking it out with de Kooning, Pollock and the other macho men of Abstract Expressionism. "It just seems so out of character," Bronson said with a hearty chuckle. But you could tell he was relishing the irony.

Haute Culture: A Retrospective, 1969-1994 is at the AGO through Jan. 1, 2012.

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