The seminal Canadian artist collective, General Idea, was founded in 1968 by its three members: Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson. The trio assumed an ambiguous identity that "freed it from the tyranny of individual genius." Through their prolific body of work in various media and formats, the group’s transgressive concepts and provocative imagery, in an intricate combination of elusive meaning and literate wit, challenged social power structures and traditional modes of artistic creation.
In 1987, while working and living in New York, the collective concentrated their focus on the AIDS epidemic. At that time, AIDS was a highly charged issue and relatively few artists directly confronted the sensitive subject matter in their work. Amid the backdrop of denial, deep-seated social prejudice and the willful neglect of the populations most affected by the virus, General Idea boldly placed themselves at the forefront of AIDS activism, striving to destigmatize the disease and those affected by it. As AA Bronson stated, “We want to make the word AIDS normal. AIDS is sort of playing the part that cancer did in the sixties. By keeping the word visible, it has a normalizing effect that will hopefully play a part in normalizing people's relationship to the disease — to make it something that can be dealt with as a disease rather than a set of moral or ethical issues.”
Attracted to its symbolic power and ambiguity of meaning, the collective revived the iconic and widely commodified image of Robert Indiana’s LOVE
and transposed the acronym for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) onto the image. Appropriating the exact compositional format of Indiana’s logo, tightly compressing the four letters onto two rows within a square, allowed them to capitalize on the image’s familiarity to popular culture to confront the more challenging content of this once unmentionable disease, thus subverting the lighthearted ‘60s icon of brotherly love into an emblem of the ‘80s’ greatest tragedy. The deliberate bluntness and simplicity of the image, without additional didactic content, leaves room for multiple interpretations and meanings. The paintings “don't indicate what their message is. But this is to a large extent what interests us,” explained Bronson, “because it actually has the effect of bringing more issues to the surface. People seem to project their own agendas onto the image and assume that the meaning of the work is correspondent to what makes them uncomfortable. One possible interpretation, a rather negative one, is that love leads to AIDS; another interpretation, this one more positive, is that AIDS brings out love in the community. Hopefully the second interpretation will be more often heard.”
After the first six-foot iteration of the AIDS works on canvas, the artists produced the present work. This twelve-panel work presents the complete set of all the split complementary color combinations from a standard color wheel. With the exception of the monochromic variations that were produced, whether paintings or otherwise, only these twelve color combinations were used in all of the other AIDS works. The set of twelve stands alone as the largest and only twelve-part grouping of AIDS paintings produced and established the palette for the entire project.
In continuing the group’s affinity with the concept of ‘image as virus,’ General Idea went on to produce their AIDS logo in a variety of media, including paintings, posters, videos, sculpture, t-shirts, wallpaper and even stamps. Beginning in 1987 with the Art Against AIDS Benefit in New York and continuing for the next 7 years, this project, titled Imagevirus, was taken out into the streets, appearing in subway cars and was found wheatpasted on walls and billboards. The insistently pervasive image was emblazoned on millions of activist surfaces throughout New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Berlin and all over the world, seeking to infiltrate every aspect of life, simulating the spread of HIV and serving as a reminder that the AIDS crisis is not limited to any one community. Bronson remarked, “When we put the AIDS posters in the New York subway system, we were interested in the fact that they passed through every geographic and ethnic barrier within the urban context.”
Following this most ambitious campaign, the trio continued their artistic output until 1994 when two of the members, Partz and Zontal, passed away from AIDS-related causes. Institutions worldwide have recognized the invaluable impact of the group’s practice as multimedia conceptual artists, with several notable museum exhibitions having taken place in recent years, including two retrospectives since 2013. The relevance of General Idea’s visionary influence continues to profoundly resonate in the present discourse and the power of their work to promote both revelation and revolution will continue as an inspiration for generations to come.