“Troublemaker” is a word AA Bronson uses to describe himself, and it is apt. A torchbearer in the 1960s counter-culture movement, Bronson has always maintained a sort of rebellious streak.
His art — originally with Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal as part of the conceptual art collective General Idea, and on his own since Partz and Zontal died in 1994 — has reflected a level of shrewd honesty and social involvement that became lodged irrevocably in the art-world dynamic as an extension of counter-culture ideals.
An artist and advocate, Bronson has left a lasting impression. The General Idea trio began producing art in 1987 that helped bring AIDS out of the shadows, an endeavor that took on a personal meaning when Partz and Zontal were diagnosed with the disease in 1989 and ’90, respectively.
General Idea experimented by perusing different formats and mediums to convey its message. In 1987, the trio tweaked Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” into “AIDS.” Known as the AIDS logo, the work drapes the collective’s clever, anti-establishment legacy that Bronson has continued over the backdrop of social involvement.
“Some artists are known just for their art,” Bronson says. “In my case, it’s my role in the world and my relationship to other artists and the public. It’s more what I’m about somehow.”
Bronson has forged that relationship with the world also as a founder and producer of visual publications. As his career and interests have shifted through the decades, the irrepressible Bronson’s role has evolved from an independent publishing pioneer to a guardian of the craft, which has proliferated and blossomed over the last half decade, particularly in Brooklyn.
Bronson’s publishing career began humbly, at his college newspaper, and was swept up in a fling shortly after dropping out of school with an underground newspaper before General Idea, experimenting constantly in print, began publishing FILE magazine, in 1972. Based in Toronto, the trio published just 3,000 copies of each FILE edition. Bronson described FILE as “essentially a cheap newspaper with a glossy cover wrapped around it,” but it gained international influence and brought Bronson in touch with other independent art publishers, such as Andy Warhol, who had, by that point, begun producing Interview.
FILE, Interview and others fueled an audience hungry for predominantly visual publications. For Bronson, magazine publication also served an almost therapeutic purpose, giving an artist yearning for control over how his work is shuttled towards the public.
Bronson explains publishing FILE allowed him control “not only my own work, but, in a way, the world. Obviously you don’t have control over the world, but you feel you do a bit when you have your own magazine. Your view of the world gets to recycle out in the world. Especially back in the ‘60s when the press was, again, homogeneous. Even the idea of a special interest magazine didn’t exist yet.”
FILE led to Art Metropole, a sort of living, breathing representation of the magazine; a space where artists could come and bask in the resources that FILE had afforded the trio of General Idea. Bronson’s innovative role had begun to swing towards becoming a caretaker of the craft. Six years ago, Bronson took the helm at Printed Matter, a non-profit in New York started in 1976 and designated for the promotion of artist publications. The New York Art Book Fair, founded and directed by Bronson, just concluded its sixth incarnation at MoMA PS1, and acts as a focal point for international, independent art publications.
“It was getting kind of depressing in New York,” Bronson says, lamenting the number of prestigious art book stores that have closed in the City over the last 20 years. “We wanted a way to bring a focus back to art publishing. We feel New York is sort of a center for art publishing, but when it’s all sort of little micro-enterprises, nobody is really aware of it. We wanted to bring a focus back to where this is happening.”
Bronson will tell you he has a knack for arranging such projects, for lassoing an issue to help wedge it in the cultural lexicon. It’s something that has never ceased, because Bronson is “somebody who gets bored very easily.
But both pathological and mystical elements combine in Bronson’s variety and dedication, as well. “It’s like it’s in my blood,” Bronson says, “but I don’t know where it came from.”