San Francisco

General Idea


The prospect that General Idea’s AIDS poster, 1987, modeled on Robert Indiana’s mid-’60s LOVE image, might achieve a cultural visibility like that of its predecessor is discomforting but maybe inevitable. LOVE started out as a painting (1966) and proliferated as prints, sculpture, trinkets, and eventually an 8-cent stamp. Despite a four-square hardiness and glints of Op-ish rapture, it always exuded a locked-in anerotic somnolence. A commentary on either image’s verbal component would be negligible, although AIDS, unlike “love,” doesn’t shift much in its connotations. General Idea’s metonymic hook seems obvious: the horrors of the AIDS pandemic in the ’80s cancel, or anyhow overlay, the wishful love ethos of the ’60s.

At best, the dryly crafted logo, which is neither profound nor crassly cynical as a piece of image management, may be serviceable as a blanket public-service reminder. General Idea has moved Indiana’s colors around just enough to preserve the balanced format; the blue/green/red registrations and the broken monosyllable still wittily impede a single-focus reading. But the AIDS image lacks the self-supporting geometry and typographic grace of the original design; instead, it breaks into top-and-bottom episodes, with the netherparts awkward and squat, undermining the bulwarklike initials up top. Does that make sense? To the extent that the space between official representations and people’s actual experience of disease and dying is patently out-of-kilter, it does.

The AIDS serigraphs covered all four walls of the large inner room of the gallery as well as a number of façades at outdoor sites. Another, smaller room had a set of similarly square paintings and constructions using the standard copyright sign stained or appliquéd with leather on bleached and frayed blue denim. These were hung on expanses of plywood tongue-and-groove paneling that suggested a boutique with a “frontier” theme. The “copyright paintings” (all 1987) are duds. Their intentional relation to Jasper Johns’ “targets” (what else would a widely stenciled “c” centered in a circle suggest?) seems only half-conscious. The conscious social trick involved—that nobody owns the copyright sign—amounts to a tautology that goes nowhere. It’s another case of the obvious being made to resonate less meaningfully than it should.

As a whole, this show demonstrated that, for all their suavity, the members of General Idea (A. A. Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal) have succumbed to a self-academicizing fixation: that of turning a playful criticality into a species of regular work. General Idea’s critiques—their mock-mercantilism and specialty-act media blitz—tend to boomerang. In their videos, three of which were screened in the gallery’s third, outer room, such reflexiveness reaches a fever pitch. Amid the dancercizing poodles and obligatory Schnabel-bashing in Shut the Fuck Up, 1985, there’s the eerie sense of Zontal’s carrying on a Taxi Driver-type mirror conversation with himself as he delivers the title refrain: “When there’s nothing to say, shut the fuck up.” The AIDS posters argue greater significance, if not effectually more nerve, than a pack of art-world poodle jokes. The poodles were triumphs of throwaway promotion. The AIDS posters are almost too smart for anyone’s good.

Bill Berkson