General Idea: Messages to the Public

Messages to the Public formed a key part of the Public Art Fund’s long-term commitment to media-based artworks. Running from 1982 to 1990, the show featured a series of artists’ projects created specifically for the Spectacolor board at Times Square.

The three artists that form General Idea—AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal—have presented more than twenty-five AIDS projects worldwide. General Idea’s AIDS image is based on Robert Indiana’s LOVE image of the 1960s. As Indiana’s LOVE became an icon for the 60s, so General Idea’s AIDS is an icon for the 1980s. Indiana’s LOVE was appropriated by consumer culture and marketed in every form from cocktail napkins to the graphics for the movie “Love Story”. General Idea has reappropriated the image and reintroduced it back into an art context. While Indiana’s image was a plea for brotherly love and sexual freedom, General Idea’s AIDS poster calls on the power of love in today’s crisis.

Beginning with a painting for the Art Against AIDS Benefit in New York in 1987, General Idea’s AIDS Project has appeared in the streets of New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and Berlin. Site-specific installations have been presented in San Francisco, Toronto, Hartford, Atlanta, Tourcoing, Florence, and Berlin; and rear-illuminated “advertising” boxes were presented at New York’s New Museum and Montreal’s Mirabelle International Airport.

As Russell Miller from Ohio newspaper The Blade Toledo explained in his article on February 19, 1984, “every month, a different artist presents a 30-second animation on the Spectacolor light board—an 800-square-foot array of 8,000 red, white, blue, and green 60-watt bulbs that dominates the Times Square vista. The spot is repeated more than 50 times a day for two weeks, wedged into a 20-minute loop of computer-animated commercials.

“Jane Dickson, a painter, was working for Spectacolor, Inc. as an ad designer and computer programmer when, three and a half years ago, she first thought to use the light board to display noncommercial art.

“‘I picked that title,’ she said of Messages to the Public, ‘because I thought the propaganda potential from this project was terrific.’ The board, she noted, was regularly used for ‘commercial propaganda.’

“Dickson sought help from the Public Art Fund, an organization based here and dedicated to taking art out of the galleries and placing it in the city’s streets and parks.”

Project director of the Public Art Fund Jessica Cusick explained, “We’re trying to do art that’s timely, has a message, is visually potent and is trying to deal with the fine line dividing fine art and commercial art.”



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