Time for Another Rewrite: The AGO’s General Idea: Haute Culture, A Retrospective 1969-1994

A review of General Idea: Haute Culture, A Retrospective 1969-1994, Art Gallery of Ontario, July 29, 2011–January 1, 2012, curated by Frédéric Bonnet, organized by ARC/Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Art Gallery of Ontario, catalogue published by JRP Ringier

That a major survey of General Idea’s work is only now taking place in Toronto seems a serious art historical oversight. Yes, there was Fern Bayer and Christina Ritchie’s excellent exhibition of the collective’s early work in 1997 (The Search for the Spirit, also at the Art Gallery of Ontario), but why did it take nearly twenty years after the group’s demise to draw together a more comprehensive account? General Idea: Haute Culture has been a long time coming.

Formed in Toronto in 1969, and made up of the pseudonymous Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson, General Idea quickly gained international acclaim. Garnering attention elsewhere (read: New York) in a way still typical of many Canadian artists, General Idea is now considered among our most influential and widely revered artists of the 70s. Founding both the periodical FILE Magazine (1972-1989; recently reissued in its entirety by JRP Ringier) and the bookstore-cum-gallery Art Metropole (1976–), they also left a lasting legacy. Best known to audiences now are perhaps their kitschy self-portraits (as doctors, poodles or seals), or the iconic AIDS wallpaper (1988), a form lifted from Robert Indiana’s pop art LOVE emblem near the outset of the epidemic.

Extending over two floors in the contemporary galleries of the AGO, Haute Culture draws together a remarkable—and largely unseen—collection of General Idea’s work. Much will be new to Toronto audiences. Of these discoveries, perhaps none are better than those drawn from the collection of their former Toronto dealer, Carmen Lamanna. These include mock archaeological fragments and Pompeian-looking murals, incorporating signature poodles in kinky positions. P is for Poodle (1982-83) is similarly delightful: an installation where stuffed poodles stand in for the three artists, arranged in a hayloft, milking cans at the ready, gazing at the constellation of Canis Major. Other rarely seen works have been lent from the collective itself: Jorge Zontal’s beautifully rendered watercolours and drawings, carried out from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s.

Curated by the Paris-based Frédéric Bonnet, one has to wonder why it took a French institution to organize the show. (Although the Art Gallery of Ontario is credited as a co-organizer of the exhibition, suggestions abound that they expressed wavering interest during its early development.) Whether the AGO will support the forthcoming catalogue raisonné—a major scholarly work by Fern Bayer assembling the group’s complete works—remains to be seen.

General Idea’s work remains indelibly rooted in the city where they formed; indeed, many early performances were staged at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The AGO’s belated retrospective underlines the fact that institutional support for Toronto-based artists has never really been their strong suit. Unless, that is, it comes twenty years late.