Début de siècle: a General Idea retrospective

AA Bronson earns honour from French government

Three man-babies tucked snugly into a shared bed, AIDS staring you straight in the face, a ménage à trois of poodles, three seals chilling in the arctic, a bored woman waiting for someone to buy relics from a beauty pageant, a triangle of art-director-types sprawled across a two-page spread. In each image – animal and human – living and dead alike are facing every which way but backward. Forward is everywhere and the future is ready to be rediscovered.

This is a glimpse into the vibrant world of General Idea, the art collective made up of Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz and AA Bronson. Even though Zontal and Partz died in 1994, General Idea’s work has had a huge impact on contemporary art in North America and around the world for the past 25 years.

Haute Culture: General Idea, Une Rétrospective, 1969-1994 opened in Paris on Feb 11 at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris/ARC. Running until the end of April, the 300-work show is curated by Odile Burluraux and Frederic Bonnet.

The exhibit came largely from a sense of urgency, “to show General Idea’s power in questioning and transgressing contemporary social and visual rules, as well as anticipating so many aspects of today’s art world,” says Bonnet.

Glamour as a creative tool, sexuality in society, architecture, and AIDS are all explored in this retrospective. The show includes highlights from General Idea’s File Magazine, works from the Miss General Idea Pavilion, and pieces focused on AIDS.

Haute Culture is not just about looking back, it’s about looking ahead. Bonnet and Burluraux break the timeline, organizing works thematically. They’ve created, in Bronson’s words, “A kind of giddiness, an overabundance of forms, gestures, and images, which is quite provocative.”

Interest in General Idea, aside from this retrospective, is enjoying a renaissance. Many of the group’s pieces are on view at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the group’s AIDS wallpaper, a reconfiguring of Robert Indiana’s Love, recently won first prize at the Estonian Print Biennial.

The resurgence of attention extends to Bronson’s solo work as well. Prints of his photo Felix, June 5th, 1994 hang at both the Whitney and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Washington.

Readers may know Bronson has asked that Felix be removed from display at the NPG after the gallery censored fellow artist David Wojnarowicz.

Bronson was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from the French government earlier in February, an honour that recognizes profound impact on French culture.


Amid all the celebration and prestige, Bronson says Haute Culture is also an, “extended memorial; every work brings memories, and so my body has been grieving. By the time of the opening I was using a cane.”

Bronson knows that a person’s legacy carries on after their death. In an essay written about collaboration in February for Artforum, he wrote, “I continue to collaborate, however, with younger artists – of several generations – as a mentor and sage. I am supported in this endeavour by Jorge and Felix: I have come to recognize that we are a community of the living and the dead.”

Haute Culture marks not merely a career now complete, a fin de siècle, it is also the beginning of a new cycle, one in which General Idea’s work will continue to find new audiences, new meanings, and new ways to inspire.

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