After more than a year without art fairs, Frieze New York is back. But this highly anticipated pandemic-era edition looked a little different. Rather than setting up shop in the usual sprawling tent on Randall’s Island, some 60 international galleries occupied the Shed, the multidisciplinary performing arts space in Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s West Side.
Founded in 1969 by the artists AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, the collective General Idea made heady but playful work that dealt with sex, art, money, and the AIDS crisis. This solo presentation offers a scattershot but substantive introduction to the group’s oeuvre. Their signature poodles appear both in cheerfully self-aware drawings with mounds of pasta-like curls and on canvas in a discreet ménage-à-trois.
The cross-Atlantic partnership between New York’s Mitchell-Innes & Nash and Berlin’s Esther Schipper has resulted in an excellent booth devoted to the output of
General Idea, the collective formed in 1969 by AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal. The presentation features some of their most distinctive works, like their paintings and drawings of frollicking, frilly poodles (priced between $15,000 and $168,000), and their darkly comic 1992 group self-portrait Playing Doctor (priced at $150,000). The work was created at the height of the AIDS crisis that would ultimately claim Partz’s and Zontal’s lives. The booth’s centerpiece is the set of nine abstract panels El Dorado Series (1992), an abstracted interpretation of 18th-century Spanish caste paintings that sought to establish a hierarchy among ethnic groups in South America.
Thomas J. Lax: AA, Thank you for speaking with Christophe and me. Can you tell us where you are—and, perhaps a more complex question—how are you?
AA Bronson: Greetings, always a pleasure! I am in Berlin, with my husband Mark, in our rambling Berlin apartment on Fasanenstrasse—before the Wall came down, and even before that, this was the heart of Berlin’s art and culture world, but now it is pleasantly old-fashioned, with gas street-lamps, small auction houses and galleries, spreading chestnut trees, and a generous population of Russian expats. And despite the pandemic and the almost constant lockdown, we are okay here. To be truthful, my life—as an old man—has not changed that much. Except that my occasional forays into Berlin nightlife regretfully have come to an end.
Much of our current global situation feels unprecedented. However, COVID-19 is not the first disease to send shockwaves through our communities. The AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s and ‘90s, like COVID-19, hit indiscriminately but affected vulnerable members of society the hardest. At the time, amidst an inadequate public response largely rooted in homophobia, many artists felt compelled to create work aimed at raising critical awareness about the crisis. With AIDS (Installation), General Idea did this with a resounding impact, which continues to echo today.
There are few artists I have more reverence for than AA Bronson. In 1969, with fellow artists Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, Bronson co-founded General Idea, the legendary Toronto-based art collective that helped pioneer Relational and Mail Art. Over the course of their decades-long collaboration, General Idea’s multidisciplinary conceptual practice helped establish bold new directions for art in Canada and abroad.
This show introduces viewers to the group's less well-known paintings: hard-edged, fluorescent geometric abstractions that evoke the pixelated silhouettes of eight-bit video games. They also allude to the mystical and political significance of stepped architecture in ancient societies, from Mesopotamia to the Mayans, where such structures were thought to lead to the gods. Exhibited alongside the paintings are plans for the "The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion," an absurdist beauty-pageant venue that, per the artists' lore, had burned to the ground, leaving only the footprint of the ziggurat.
The real surprise of the show is a series of paintings in the main gallery. Covered in allover patterns of interlocking ziggurats, two rectangular compositions from 1968–69 neatly combine stain painting with systemic minimalism. Nearly textbook examples of avant-garde abstract painting concerns of their day, these canvases split the difference between seriousness and burlesque.
The importance of the ziggurat to General Idea’s practice cannot be understated. It is a central and repeated symbol in General Idea’s vocabulary, appearing (either implicitly or explicitly) in paintings, drawings, performances, photographs, sculptures, prints, videos and costumes spanning the group’s existence. An ancient Mesopotamian architectural structure of steps leading up to a temple, the ziggurat symbolizes as a link between humans and the gods. The symbol can be found in cultures ranging from Mesopotamia to the Aztec to Navajo Nation. General Idea appropriates this symbol of power and theism, utilizing the form as a framing device to examine questions of branding, architecture and spatial politics.
This summer and autumn, General Idea has posthumous exhibitions at MAMCO, Geneva’s museum of contemporary art, and Mitchell-Innes & Nash in New York. Next spring, Esther Schipper and KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin will showcase works by Bronson and his collective, as well those created under his pseudonym ‘JX Williams’. Outside of the gallery and institutional sphere, Bronson is compiling the group’s catalogue raisonné with Fern Bayer and developing a performance project at the Siksika Nation Aboriginal reserve in Canada.
“They reinvented the idea of artist activism,” Lucy Mitchell-Inness, a co-owner of the gallery, told ARTnews. “They took on ideas—those often demonized or ignored—with a boldness that was unheard of at the time. [General Idea] came of age in a period that saw pivotal changes in queer conceptualism and postmodernism. They led the charge in decentralization and intervention within the institutional framework.”
General Idea’s now highly collectible magazine File dedicated its 1981 issue to the theme of success, with a contribution by Warhol and a dollar sign sculpture of their own contrivance on the cover. But by then General Idea had already experimented with new forms of retail like pop-ups and courted the international fashion set from their home base in Toronto for over a decade.