Spread from FILE Megazine 3, no. 1 (Fall 1975). Rodney Werden, portrait of General Idea. From left: Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, AA Bronson.

Spread from FILE Megazine 3, no. 1 (Fall 1975). Rodney Werden, portrait of General Idea. From left: Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, AA Bronson.

General Idea

Spread from FILE Megazine 3, no. 1 (Fall 1975). Rodney Werden, portrait of General Idea. From left: Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, AA Bronson.

According to Frank Zappa, “God made three big mistakes: The first mistake was called man. The second mistake was called wo-man. And the third mistake was the invention of the poodle.” Seeing “Haute Culture: General Idea, Une rétrospective 1969–1994” made one suspect that the consummate artist, as fashioned by General Idea, was part man, part woman, and part poodle.

The male part of this artist was created in 1975. A previously unpublished 1991 interview with General Idea in the catalogue to this recent exhibition reveals that the name first appeared in 1970, not 1968, as legend has it, and that GI initially cultivated an anonymous collective identity. The group reinvented itself as three men in 1975, when the pseudonymous AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal struck a pose as architects and ran the photo in the “Glamour” issue of FILE, GI’s own media outlet, founded in 1972. Next to these architect-men absorbed in concerted willfulness, the text reads: “We wanted to be famous, glamorous, and rich. . . . 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.” This text reappears in two other projects important for understanding General Idea’s enterprise, “Showcards,” 1975–79, and Pilot, 1977. The former comprises 304 photo-and-text documents—a third of which were in the show—that set out GI’s project with short, seemingly cogent but deliberately hollow declarations. Pilot is a waggish, thirty-minute made-for-TV film. Putting television, a relatively new context for exhibiting art, through the wringer and making off with its news and talk-show conventions, the Toronto-based trio explains that their art comprises TV specials, FILE magazine, and beauty pageants.

Miss General Idea, who was born in 1970, just two months after General Idea, constitutes the female part. GI alternately claimed her as its muse and masterpiece, but it sometimes seems she was its alter ego. In Pilot, Zontal put it this way: “Like art stars, beauty queens are considered cultural inspirational devices.” She was the moving force behind some fifteen years of production. Numerous elements from the fictional pavilion for her 1984 pageant were exhibited, such as an architectural model in the form of a dress made of venetian blinds, V.B. Gown # 5, 1975; a Proposed Seating Arrangement (Form Follows Fiction), 1975, in a ziggurat design; and The Boutique from the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion, 1980, with a desk in the shape of a dollar sign.

In 1982, the canine part of GI burst forth. Opening with the visually stunning poodle Armory of the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion, 1985–90, the retrospective ended with the horrid P is for Poodle (The Milky Way from the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion), 1982, with many other poodles in between. Despite gaping aesthetic discrepancies, General Idea was always clear on its choice of dog: An eager-to-please social ornament, the poodle is an apt stand-in for the artist.

GI’s simultaneous dismantling of and complicity in the art world’s mechanisms, its wry emphasis on glamour, and its takeover of authorship after a spell of obscured collective identity prefigured what collectives such as Bernadette Corporation were to do nearly thirty years later. But in their brazen silliness GI showed far less mercy in their scrutiny of the artist’s place in society. Other sections of this retrospective, curated by Frédéric Bonnet and traveling to the Art Gallery of Ontario in July, feature early mail-art projects, later TV works, and ostensibly impassive works on the theme of aids, which, in 1994, took the lives of Partz and Zontal, drawing General Idea to a close.

Jian-Xing Too