Challenging both the art world and the world at large, General Idea (1969–1994) remain some 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 groundbreaking practice that spanned twenty-five years.
Witty and eccentric, General Idea made artworks that critiqued the art world, including the museum itself. Their work not only resonated in their own time, but has continued to inspire today’s artists, activists, cultural commentators and social-media influencers. Addressing various aspects of mass media, consumer culture, social inequalities, queer identity, the art economy and the AIDS crisis, often through satire, they pushed boundaries, profoundly altering the course of postwar art.
In the most comprehensive retrospective on the trio ever produced, the National Gallery of Canada brings together more than 200 works exploring General Idea’s career, from their early days emerging from late 1960s counterculture to the acclaimed IMAGEVIRUS series that permeated the media landscape in the late 1980s, culminating in the deeply moving works of their final years.
Presenting major installations as well as publications, videos, drawings, paintings, sculptures and archival material, General Idea tells the story of a group whose brilliant output laid the foundation for future generations of creators, informing new ways of reimagining and changing our world through art.
Organized by the National Gallery of Canada
General Idea began as a group of friends and collaborators—men and women, cis, trans, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and straight—who met in Toronto in the summer of 1969. They started living and working together and became General Idea the following year when someone mistook the title of one of their artworks for the group’s name. By 1973 they had settled as a trio: AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal. For twenty-five years they developed an extraordinary personal and artistic relationship, always maintaining that three heads were better than one.
Slobodan Saia-Levi (Jorge Zontal) was born on 28 January 1944 in a concentration camp in Parma, Italy, to Sephardic Jewish parents who had left Yugoslavia after the onset of the Second World War. Zontal’s father was sent from Italy to Auschwitz, and his mother fled with her infant son to Switzerland. The family was reunited and were refugees before settling in Caracas, Venezuela, when Zontal was eight years old. In the mid-1960s, he went to Halifax, where he studied architecture at Dalhousie University, graduating in 1968. Throughout Zontal’s time at the university he sought opportunities to make films, such as Bingo (1967–68), recording a group of seniors playing at a hall in Halifax. By 1968 Zontal had connected with the art scene in Vancouver, meeting artists around Intermedia Society – including Michael Morris of Image Bank, with whom General Idea would later collaborate – and attending a workshop led by Deborah Hay, where he briefly met Bronson, in town to facilitate sessions on group therapy.
Ronald Gabe (Felix Partz) was born in Winnipeg on 23 April 1945 and studied fine art at the University of Manitoba from 1964 to 1967. During these university years he made prints, installations, films and geometric abstract paintings, the last under the influence of his teacher, Kenneth Lochhead, then a highly influential painter associated with the Regina Five. In 1966 Partz was commissioned by the university to make a welded steel and enamel outdoor sculpture. Titled Sunbeams (Marching over the Hill), it is still extant on the campus. The following year, he was awarded a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts that allowed him to travel to Europe and North Africa from summer 1967 through spring 1968. In early summer 1969, Partz arrived in Toronto to visit his then-girlfriend, Mimi Paige, who was living at Rochdale College, University of Toronto.
Born in Vancouver on 16 June 1946, Michael Tims (AA Bronson) began studying architecture at the University of Winnipeg in 1964. By 1966 he had dropped out to found, along with a group of classmates and friends, a free school (The School), a free store (The Store), a commune and a newspaper (The Loving Couch Press ). By March 1969, Bronson was in Toronto. He had gone there primarily to visit Rochdale College, at the time a model of radical education, only planning on staying for a couple weeks. He was given Paige as a roommate, as they knew each other from Winnipeg, and he ended up living at Rochdale for the next six months or so. It was there that he met Stan Bevington, Victor Coleman and others at Coach House Press, as well as Jim Garrard, who had founded Theatre Passe Muraille.
Time, as is often the case with General Idea, is discontinuous, strangely wound on itself.
—Adam Welch, Associate Curator, Canadian Art, National Gallery of Canada
The Line Project was developed for the exhibition Concept 70 at Toronto’s Nightingale Gallery (later A Space). It began with a radio announcement seeking participants for a “conceptual art project.”
Respondents provided their names and addresses, and those in the metropolitan Toronto area were visited by the artists behind the Line Project. Respondents and their homes were photographed, and their locations were recorded on a map, in order of visit.
The dots between locations were then connected by lines as the crow flies, and the shape this created was replicated outside the gallery as a performance. Respondents each held a length of rope and stood in the relative locations of their homes. In addition, a chalk drawing of the shape was made on the street, and was gradually erased by passing traffic.
The Line Project’s initial title was General Idea. However, the Nightingale Gallery confused the title of the project with that of the artist group, and General Idea was born.
And that’s another topic, the queer content running through our work, done with just enough humour that nobody could hold it against us. At the time, if you defined yourself as a gay artist or a queer artist that would be the end of your career. Everything would be over. But we were constantly putting out traces of queerness in everything we did.
—AA Bronson, interview with Beatrix Ruf, 2022
In the 1800s the word “queer”—meaning strange—was used as a derogatory term to describe individuals sexually attracted to people of the same gender. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, activists such as Queer Nation in New York reclaimed the word as an empowering way to describe people with non-normative sexual and gender identities. At the same time, academics pioneered queer theory. The term queer is continually in flux, means different things to different people, and is not embraced by all.
There was a kind of sequence … there were the Black AIDS paintings, where life is getting very black. Then there was a sudden movement to the White AIDS paintings, and then to an idea of the breath of life. That turned into the silver balloons of Magi© Bullet, and with Fin de siècle, into the great white north, the void – a more ethereal, transcendental view of life.
—AA Bronson, interview with Beatrix Ruf, 2022
General Idea is known for prompting public interaction with their artworks, both within museums and on the streets, beyond the constraints of walls.
Among the many extraordinary installations in this exhibition, visitors won’t want to miss Magi© Bullet and Magi© Carpet. Conceived for a New York gallery, each alludes to the work of a different post-war American artist.
First installed in 1992, only two years prior to the deaths of Partz and Zontal, Magi© Bullet consists of helium-filled balloons shaped like shiny silver pills. Evoking Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds (1966), they deflate over time and fall to the ground, transforming the work from a site-specific installation to thousands of multiples. Magi© Carpet references the fluorescent tubes of artist Dan Flavin, whose work is on view in gallery B206.
Visitors are invited to collect the balloons and take them home, extending Magi© Bullet’s presence outside of the Gallery. The installation will empty out over the course of the exhibition – a testament to those who have died from AIDS-related illnesses.
The exhibition also extends beyond the Gallery’s walls.
Until November, visitors can approach, touch, and interact with the powder-coated steel AIDS Sculpture (1989) situated on the Plaza just outside the Gallery. In addition, throughout the summer, AIDS (Ottawa) posters will be plastered across the city, including the Byward Market, and a billboard featuring AIDS (2022) by AA Bronson installed at the corner of Preston and Somerset streets. During the month of June, General Idea and AA Bronson’s VideoVirus (2022) animated the National Art Centre’s Kipnes Lantern every hour on the hour between 6 and 11 pm. These projects reactivate General Idea’s viral AIDS project, launched in New York City in 1987.
The NGC began collecting General Idea’s work in 1973 with the purchase of Evidence of Body Binding (1971). Since then, the Gallery has established an extensive collection of the group’s work, numbering close to 200 artworks. The NGC Library and Archives is home to the world’s most important collection of documentation on General Idea, and is the foremost centre for scholarship on the group.
The General Idea fonds, on long-term loan to the NGC, contains a wealth of material related to projects and works produced by the artist group. It includes scripts, correspondence, graphic material, rubber stamps, audiovisual tapes, film reels and photographs.
In 1974, General Idea launched Art Metropole, one of the first artist-run centres in Canada. The Art Metropole Collection comprises nearly 13,000 objects, including artist multiples, books, postcards, photographs, invitations, documentation, files and working drawings.
FILE Megazine (1972–89) was conceived by General Idea as a subversive version of the iconic LIFE Magazine. The NGC Library and Archives collection features more than 2,000 items relating to FILE Megazine, on long-term loan, including production materials for the publication.
The Fern Bayer fonds incorporates material related to the activities of General Idea, collected by the well-known curator, and includes more than 1,000 photographs and slides, sound and video recordings, monographs, periodicals and exhibition catalogues.
This monumental publication presents a visual survey of General Idea’s artworks, from their earliest performances and actions to their use of consumer and advertising media in the public realm to their gallery and museum work. Including texts by a range of scholars and more than 500 illustrations, it is the definitive resource on General Idea.
Have questions about the art you see in General Idea?
Look for our friendly interpreters in the exhibition on holidays, weekends and Thursday evenings.
Let the artwork inspire you to dig in and have fun connecting, cooperating and creating. Our friendly bilingual Interpreters will be on hand to support you . A buffet of art materials awaits! Learn More
CATIE is Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information. Visit their website to read about HIV basics, find out how to learn your status, and discover HIV-prevention options – such as PrEP, PEP and using HIV treatment to prevent transmission. You can pick up a copy of CATIE’s free magazine The Positive Side from the NGC Boutique. The current issue features an interview with AA Bronson.
My mother came to visit us in New York in the early 1990s. I guess Jorge was already sick. She had lived through two wars, through both bombings of London. Her first husband was shot down over Cologne. There was a young man who was always sitting on the ground on 6th Avenue, just down the street from us, with a sign asking for money. He was homeless because his HIV drugs had taken all his money. My mother was very struck by this. She said, “it’s like the war. It’s no different. All the young men are dying.”
I still have the memory of my mother rushing over and giving this guy a $20 bill. She was so touched. It was so long ago now, over thirty years ago. But I still remember him very clearly because he was always there, every day at the corner. We knew so many people who were dying, and he was like an emblem. And then one day he disappeared, never reappeared. A whole generation disappeared. Of course, it was the risk takers who died. The people who never took risks weren’t dying. It was the artists, the dancers, the creators who were all dying. I wonder what the world would be like if they had lived?
—AA Bronson, interview with Beatrix Ruf, 2022