They were our consorts, our pampered pets,
our familiars and alter egos...
Frédéric Bonnet: Throughout your career, General Idea always made a lot of self-portraits and all three of you played quite a lot with your image. Were poodles thought of as a kind of faux self—both a portrait of your real selves in fictional situations and fictitious selves portraying a reality? Why poodles?
AA Bronson: Felix declared that it began with barking. He opened the door and in they came, the poodles, and they never left us. They were our consorts, our pampered pets, our familiars and alter egos for the remainder of our time together, another fifteen years.
They first appeared in Boudoir Poodles (1981), a faux wallpaper remnant, an archaeological relic from the ruins of the Miss General Idea Pavillion. Were these three poodles, depicted in such slanderous disarray, a self-portrait of the artist … or not?
General Idea began making self-portraits back in 1977: we portrayed ourselves as three architects, three engineers, and—of course—three artists. But as three gay men “in bed together,” as the expression goes, our attention turned to the subject of gay sensibility, queer identity, and to the fact that any mention of gay art was a kind of cultural suicide. In 1981, when Richard Flood invited us to make a work for the exhibition Beast at PS1 in New York, we knew we had to compete with the coyotes and wolves of the “new” painting—so MACHO!—and we embraced our fey familiars.
AB: We pushed back at the critics and their deviant heterosexuality—you know who you are!—with Boudoir Poodles and Pink Poodle Fragments (1981) and Tableau Vivant, Natura Morta (1982), with poodle archaeology at documenta 7, and with our photographic self-portrait P is for Poodle (1983), which appeared in so many forms, as the cover of FILE Megazine, for example—how enraging to see that threesome of self-satisfied poodles staring back at one from the magazine stands, unashamedly “different,” where everyone could see! Of course, in the postwar period, the image of the French poodle had somehow gained an aura of lighthearted debauchery, related to cocktails, the Eiffel Tower, and the Folies Bergère. Certainly nothing to do with “serious”art, the kind of art that is shown in museums and talked about in Artforum. So when Ingrid Sischy invited us to depict that debauchery on the very pages of the holy of holies, and then we did, not in the plain sober black and white of conceptual art, but in raging shocking pink, chrome yellow, and hot poker orange, well maybe that was just too much.
...how enraging to see that threesome of self-satisfied poodles staring back at one from the magazine stands...
FB: Though the first poodles appeared in General Idea’s œuvre in 1981, they gained a substantial visibility with the considerable body of work related to archaeology, when, following your narrative, the Ruins of the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion allowed the “discovery” of mural decors, ancient paintings, and ceramics fragments showing dogs in all sorts of ways. I can’t stop thinking here of your 1973 statement: “Form follows fiction.”
Is there a link? What would that mean given the way you considered the poodle and its role?
AB: We were inspired by a visit to the ruins of Pompeii—masterminded by our Neapolitan dealer Lucio Amelio, at a time when the ruins were closed to the public—to think of ourselves as archaeologists, sifting through the ruins of culture to find the forgotten images of our own special reality. Boudoir Poodles and The Unveiling of the Cornucopia (1982) are thinly veiled interpretations of fragments of wall paintings at the Villa dei Misteri, for example, culminating in The Firewall (1985).
We were inspired by a visit to the ruins of Pompeii... to think of ourselves as archaeologists, sifting through the ruins of culture to find the forgotten images of our own special reality.
AB: Perhaps the past was a thinly veiled narrative of sexual connection, of polymorphous perversity, intended to inspire the present, intended to inspire “us”! A sojourn on nearby Capri, with a special tour of forgotten queer pathways around the side of the mountain—to a cave haunted by memories of smugglers and gay orgies in the moonlight—soon linked archaeology to queer history for us, but also to our favorite subject of glamour: Sophia Loren inhabited the house next door, although we never caught a glimpse, no more than a faint flutter at a curtained window. Yes, “form follows fiction” has been our byword since the beginning. It was our pleasure to pervert the slogans of modernism and to inhabit the remnants of postwar culture as a kind of disguise, a costume, perhaps indeed a damp furry manhole, from which we could taunt the bigots and self-involved intellectuals of the straight white art world.
FB: You often stated that you liked the poodle for its “banal image,” but most of the time you inserted the dogs in complex narratives, like in the works related to archaeology and Cornucopia, and in unusual situations, like in the installation P is for Poodle: The Milky Way From the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion (1982–1983), which are anything but banal. Can you talk about this contradiction?
AB: Contradiction and complicity were the hallmarks of General Idea. And of course we loved to shoplift, as it were, the great moments of art from the twentieth century’s great masters (masculine gender intended!) and distort them to queer advantage. In Rome, we had met Fabio Sargentini, the famous dealer of L’Attico, who hosted Kounellis’s groundbreaking work Untitled (12 Horses) (1969), in which a dozen live stallions inhabited the gallery, which had once been a stable. How manly—so MACHO!—and like all gay men, we adored the masculine! In 1982, the Akademie der Künste invited us to present a performance in the divided city of Berlin, in the midst of the fabled Tiergarten and its nighttime excesses. We invented a stable constructed of bales of hay, decorated with golden milk buckets, gilded milking stools, and iron spirals, three-dimensional drawings that were at once Theosophical cones of protection and diagrams of the passage of poodle pee down the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. OK, we had vivid imaginations!
And of course we loved to shoplift, as it were, the great moments of art from the twentieth century’s great masters (masculine gender intended!) and distort them to queer advantage.
FB: Was this installation a satirical comment of the artist’s condition, the way he is perceived, as well as the clichés that surround him and his aura?
AB: The stable was to be inhabited by three live pampered poodles, König Pudeln, preferably white, who played the part of the three artists, three courtiers for your entertainment. Think of the cavorting poodle in Fragonard’s gay painting Girl with Dog (c. 1770). However, not long before our opening, the Akademie informed us that they could not find three poodles in the walled city of West Berlin, and anyway, they explained, poodles were French, not German! They proposed a taxidermist who specialized, ironically, in Canadian wildlife, and he fabricated three artificial poodles for us of straw and acrylic fake fur. After all, artificiality was our goal! Of course when the audience trouped into the gallery in expectation of a performance, they found only a kind of mise-en-scène, a menagerie with three audio tracks merging in various combinations: the sound of pissing (or was it applause?), ritual drumming, and a song sung by young virgins in Bali (so camp!), which always reminded me of Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (1955), “the first masterpiece of electronic music.” Hanging overhead, a pierced screen representing Canis Major, the big dog! Is this astrology or astronomy or simply silliness? And are the three artists of General Idea the Three Wise Men? Will they make an appearance in mystical drag, in poodle hats, with dark smudges around their bedroom eyes? The audience seated themselves on the floor around the perimeter of the room, but after an hour they realized that nothing further was happening and left, grumbling.
FB: Was the poodle the ideal metaphorical picture to deal with the stereotypes that come with both gay image (the well-groomed hairdresser) and artist image (the bohemian)?
AB: I remember, after our first show of poodles, a friend said to us: “I have always liked your work, but poodles? POODLES???” This was the first sign that we were on to something, which we might identify as repressed homophobia but also as a je ne sais quoi: the magic ingredient supplied by the viewer that made our art art.
FB: You also stated that the poodle “was an easy image to occupy.” Does this mean that you considered it as a transmission vector? And therefore do you consider that this vector became necessary to share your ideas, and why?
AB: A transmission vector. I like that phrase. In these days of the coronavirus, it is good to remember that General Idea’s favorite mode of transmission was the virus. And we were talking about it and doing it decades before Madison Avenue fell upon the phrase “viral advertising.”
Yes, the poodle was an image that opened many doors: when you hear the dog barking, you let it into the house. And especially a dog such as this: so smart, so appealing, so loving, so extraordinarily artistic, asking to be coiffed and dyed for your pleasure.
In the seventies, we were immersed in theory, and I think it shows. But in the eighties, we wanted an art that could delight, that spoke in many ways to many audiences. The prancing, preening pampered poodles carried multiple meanings and gave themselves freely—like the artist—in their desire to please. “Those that live to please must please to live.” The artist is the pampered pet of the new bourgeoisie.
“Those that live to please must please to live.”
The artist is the pampered pet of the new bourgeoisie.
FB: Among General Idea’s references in your earlier years were the writings of Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard related to consumption, the nature and the image of the object, the simulacrum of the real … Were these a jumping-off point when you started thinking of the poodles, the way you could use it and their meanings?
AB: We never thought about the poodles. We heard them barking and opened the door … and in they came! Of course they were French poodles, so if they brought with them traces—the barest whisper of a scent—of decadent French theory, then so be it!
FB: Was the P is for Poodle portrait conceived as a way to give a new breath to the zest for parody that characterized General Idea’s work since the beginning of your career?
AB: I suppose that is what happened. We had returned from Dharamsala, in India, where we visited with the Dalai Lama, together with the Dutch artist Louwrien Wijers, and photographed the Dalai Lama for Louwrien’s new book. And in our ten days there we had many adventures and attended many teachings. P is for Poodle is a kind of perverted visual memory of the pomp and panoply of the Tibetan court. We were half poodle, half human, we played the part of our own consorts. Our left brains and right brains tussled for dominance! Perhaps dinner with the State Oracle had messed with our self-image; or Lama Yeshe—who had been the Mother Superior of a Tibetan nunnery in a previous lifetime—with his frothy cloud of Tibetan terriers and Lhasa apsos nipping at his heels, had shifted our idea of normal male self-representation. Certainly laughter is the best medicine in the Tibetan court!
FB: In this portrait as well as in works like Mondo Cane Kama Sutra, for example, the transposition from human to canine—and vice versa—did you think of it as a means of broaching the issue of transgenderism, or a form of fluidity?
AB: Absolutely! In our poodle works, which almost always involve sex, gender remains ambiguous. The geometry of desire is everywhere, but there is no male and no female. The earliest critiques in the press described the work as being a metaphor for collaboration, for “working together.” And the actual mechanics of the painting technique echoed Frank Stella’s Protractor series, giving them a kind of faux authority; we could think of them as a palimpsest of white male dominance layered with pop frivolity, but who is on top? And are they serious? I think of these paintings as a kind of Trojan horse (it is no accident that Trojan is the brand name of a popular prophylactic), occupying the form of “serious” (male) serial painting in order to infect the mainstream with something that Susan Sontag might have called “camp.”
I think of these paintings as a kind of Trojan horse... occupying the form of “serious” (male) serial painting in order to infect the mainstream with something that Susan Sontag might have called “camp.”
FB: Does the title of the Mondo Cane Kama Sutra (1984) and Mondo Cane Kama Sutra (Distressed) (1983–1988) series come from the 1962 film Mondo Cane, which, in the guise of a documentary, showed a kind of exploitative “museum of horrors” of some cultural practices shocking for a Western audience? If so, did you intend in the paintings to insist on forms of sexuality that some considered “horrific”?
AB: The film Mondo Cane was the very form of B movie that General Idea loved, with pretensions to culture, including campy footage of an Yves Klein Anthropométrie painting performance in Paris using naked models in International Klein Blue paint rubbing themselves against a large canvas—frottage! The film’s title Mondo Cane (World of Dogs) refers to the title footage of dogs in cages for sale for human consumption. So for us these two themes—a dog-eat-dog world and the art world glamour of naked models in blue paint—merged into a madcap cocktail of our own invention. The theme is explicated most thoroughly in our video Shut the Fuck Up (1985).
The painting series Mondo Cane Kama Sutra (1983) was created as part of an installation and performance at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva. The performance was based on the Klein performance in the Mondo Cane film, except that we used our fake stuffed poodles instead of women as models, dipping them in Chroma Key Blue paint and using them as paintbrushes to make our mark on the canvas. The resulting installation is called XXX (bleu) (1984). From the walls above us, the fucking poodles looked down upon our human dalliance, decorating our purist “Action” with the lurid gay Day-Glo doggy sex threesomes above—quelle horreur!
FB: These series parodied sexuality, all the while taking up a very direct challenge to institutionalized norms. Could we see them as a discourse or comment on “sexual politics”?
AB: Today a young man contacted me, looking for reading sources on the subject of “queer sex magick.” That is a question I am asked on a regular basis. I doubt that Mondo Cane Kama Sutra is seen as “sexual politics” from a feminist perspective, but they do mess with gender, sex, and the body. So in that sense, I will give an enthusiastic YES. We were followers of Guy Hocquenghem, not gay liberation; of Thierry Mugler, not Larry Kramer. We were more European—such a vicious condemnation in the mouths of our critics—than American. The perpetual problem of the lowly Canadian. (An aside: Lawrence Weiner once told me that it was impossible to be an “important” artist of the twentieth century without being American—a drunken provocation! Was it Anselm Kiefer who made the counterproposal that it was impossible to be an important artist of the twentieth century without a Nazi for a father?)
FB: Did you want to forward the idea of the “throuple” as a possible normal way of life?
AB: We never wanted to be normal. Nevertheless, the answer is yes, and I do think the throuple has always been normal. Think of the Marx Brothers. Think of Huey, Dewey, and Louie!
We were followers of Guy Hocquenghem, not gay liberation; of Thierry Mugler, not Larry Kramer.
FB: Was the way you conceived the Mondo Cane Kama Sutra series, with ten very large panels, kind of an ironical reference to the historical tradition of multi-panel works featuring religious or political cycles?
AB: The series is more closely linked to serial painting of the sixties, in particular Frank Stella’s Protractor series. And yet, General Idea’s constant turn to the number ten can be seen in another light: like the ten stages of Humpty Dumpty (for example) (1972), the ten stages of Borderline Cases (1975), or the ten paintings of Mondo Cane Kama Sutra (1984), the influence is more Kabbalist than Catholic, more Theosophical or Rabbinical than Episcopalian. I think there is substance for a thesis here.
FB: Firewall, with its more than two hundred plaster tiles, shows a complex iconography mixing skulls, putti faces, and poodles. Can you talk about this mix and the references that underlie them?
AB: There are two works like this: Cave Canem: Calendar Wall Fragment from the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion (1984) was the first, and then Firewall. Each is a massive wall built of cast and painted “tiles” of plaster, simulating something like a segment of Mesopotamian wall at the Met, for example (such a spectacle! So MACHO!!). The implication is that these are surviving plundered walls from a tomb, from the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion itself! I suppose that in part we were quoting the museological but also queering the museological: we wanted our work to be worthy of museums and our strategy was to create works that mimicked the museological. There is also an implicit narrative of time, from the putti to the skulls: in Cave Canem…, one thousand nine hundred eighty-four poodles are each numbered from 1 to 1984, General Idea’s target year. This army of poodles echoes the armies of workers that decorate the Egyptian pyramids: the suggestion of extended time is a suggestion of timelessness. The painted panel at the center of Firewall provides the narrative: General Idea portray themselves as three poodles rising like the Phoenix from flames, which they extinguish by peeing in spirals! Golden showers indeed! Spirals like those in the P is for Poodle installation … so Theosophical! So GAY!
General Idea portray themselves as three poodles rising like the Phoenix from flames, which they extinguish by peeing in spirals! Golden showers indeed!
FB: In the early 1990s, so years after the poodles appeared, Jorge drew a lot of poodles with watercolor or pencil. Had the poodle then become for him kind of a daily routine, a necessary companion, a way to fill the downtime?
AB: Once the poodles appeared, they never left us. Yes, there was a period when Jorge drew poodles daily, in blissful variation. This was after he was diagnosed with AIDS, so perhaps it was a way to keep his spirits up, and to re-create the sometimes giddy energy that filled the early eighties. At the same time, we queered the idea of the masterwork—the Meisterwerk!—with La caniche à la mode (1981–1993). Like the Pink Poodle Fragments of 1981, which we unveiled at documenta 7, it appropriates a drawing by Valentine Hugo from the program of a postwar fashion show, only now glamourized to the max: Day-Glo pink acrylic on 24-carat gold leaf, and appliqued jewels (paste, of course)!
FB: Were poodles a way to keep playing with the central idea of glamour inhabiting the artist and the artwork, switching General Idea’s visual vocabulary from black-and-white photographs in the 1970s to much more pictorial and colored works in the 1980s, more in line with the era?
AB: Not only Glamour but also Irony, I think. But yes, many of the poodle works take the viewer on a journey into the world of post-conceptual color. In this case, the Day-Glo paints play the part of the purely RGB color featured so bluntly and unapologetically in the videos Test Tube (1979) and Shut the Fuck Up. I have heard the poodle works of the eighties referred to as “Pop,” but to my mind they are something more complex, a kind of postmodern rendering of postmodernity. I like to think of the poodle works as representations of The Self become The Sublime—ironic or not!
Once the poodles appeared, they never left us.
GENERAL IDEA: P IS FOR POODLE
Catalogue produced on the occasion of the exhibition General Idea: P is for Poodle
Introduction by AA Bronson
Book design by Barr Gilmore
© 2020 Mitchell-Innes & Nash
Available through DAP/Disbtributed Art Publishers
GENERAL IDEA (1969 - 1994)
Founded in Toronto in 1969 by AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, General Idea were among the first artists to implement media critique and queer theory in their work. For twenty-five years, they created a pioneering and singular practice that addressed the intersection of art and commerce, the role of the artist and the museum, body politics and, later, the AIDS crisis. Using strategies of appropriation, audience participation, humor and irony, they staged performances and created paintings, posters, photographs, installations, videos, magazines and other multiples that together form a kind of meta-spectacle as much as a formal artistic oeuvre. As Bronson has noted, General Idea “emerged in the aftermath of the Paris riots, from the detritus of hippie communes, underground newspapers, radical education, Happenings, love-ins, Marshall McLuhan and the International Situationists….[It] was at once complicit in and critical of the mechanisms and strategies that join art and commerce, a sort of mole in the art world.”
Known for “its wit, pampered presence and ornamental physique,” the poodle arrived into the visual lexicon of General Idea in the early 1980s and quickly became a vehicle by which the group addressed issues ranging from sexual stereotypes to the commodification of contemporary art. However, beyond its use as an agent of subtle yet substantive political and social critique, the poodle also served as a kind of heraldic device—an emblem for the mythology of General Idea and its processes of mythmaking. Through its various incarnations of the poodle, General Idea strived for a metanarrative that skirted the boundaries between artifact and artifice; history and fantasy; truth and fiction.
Frédéric Bonnet is an art critic and curator living and working in Paris. He is a regular contributor to Le Journal des Arts and a columnist on France Culture radio. His past exhibitions projects include Mike Nelson. Le Cannibale (Parody, Consumption and Institutional Critique), Villa Arson, Nice (2008) and Haute Culture: General Idea. A Retrospective, 1969–1994 at Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris and Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (2011).
AA Bronson is an artist. He was a founding member of the artists’ group General Idea, was president and director of Printed Matter, Inc., New York, and started both the NY Art Book Fair and the LA Art Book Fair.
Poodle Trouble © 2020 Frédéric Bonnet and AA Bronson