Lil Picard was an unusual hybrid of the European and American avant-garde, combining the urban sophistication of a Berlin intellectual of the 1920s and 30s with the American bohemianism of the 1950s and the rising feminist art of the 60s. Her critical writing illuminated a cultural bridge between the artists of America and Germany and helped nurture their respective audiences. But she was also an accomplished artist in her own right, of the happening/performance persuasion, as well as a poet exploring the underground of experimental art. As she inscribed in one of her sculptures, “In Division and Contrast rest Harmony under the colored roof of light.”
This long overdue exhibition of 70 works, assembled by Kathleen A. Edwards, chief curator of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, brings back memories of the Lil I knew: ironic, sarcastic, creative, and multitalented, as she was throughout a lifetime spanning nearly a full century. Here at the Grey Art Gallery of N.Y.U., the emphasis is on painting-collages and sculpture-assemblages, in a well-deserved and scholarly retrospective.
As a young woman, Lil Picard took ballet and singing lessons with the mother of the Dadaist writer Walter Mehring; later, in Berlin, where she worked as a journalist, she was friendly with members of the Berlin Dada group that included Richard Huelsenbeck, George Grosz, Emmy Hennings, and Hugo Ball.
She emigrated to the United States in 1937 and by the 40s was exhibiting in Greenwich Village’s West 10th Street galleries and establishing herself as an avant-garde feminist artist. Hans Hoffmann, with whom she studied briefly, inspired her to use colored abstract fields partially comprised of collage elements. The painting “Crossing” (1947, oil and mixed media) is one of the earliest works in this show, an abstract amalgam of red and yellow corrugated cardboard squares, followed by “Collage in Blue” (1957, oil and collage on canvas), composed of female and male figures—and one big breast—delineated in string.
Throughout her life, Picard methodically referred to her own career in her visual and performance art, which often incorporated autobiographical observations and experiences as recorded in personal journals, snapshots and notes, drafts, and published articles, as well as images of her past work. (In the 50s and 60s, Picard had a long love affair with American-Guatemalan artist Alfred Jensen.) But first and foremost she was an original creator; her collage-paintings prove the theory that destruction creates fertile ground for a new construction; she composed sophisticated collages, and then covered them with enamel, oil paint, and whitewash, obliterating the original images. She also conjured mysterious sculptures from found objects that evoked the chaos she experienced all around her.
Two major works in the show are painting-collages made from memorabilia collected on a trip to Europe in 1959, with stickers from Florence and Genoa, pieces of postcards from the Piazza San Marco in Venice and tickets to the Vatican in Rome. In the 60s, she was briefly involved with William Copley’s so-called loft group of artists (on New York City’s Upper West Side); one of her works from this period, “Burned Bow-Tie,” which likely originated in her husband Odell’s closet, made it into the loft artists’ portfolio/anthology, SMS-4 [Shit Must Stop].
By this time, Picard also was part of the NO!art group, co-founded by Boris Lurie, Sam Goodman, and Stanley Fisher. Its mission was to rebel against both Abstract Expressionism, and early Pop Art. At this show, a recessed frame containing five burned ties, assisted/destroyed by a hand iron and dated 1968, is on display next to some transparent plastic ties, also burned.
Perhaps the most intriguing works are Picard’s series of totems/temples, large and small figures floating in outer space. Made from corrugated cardboard, some wear a plastic dome while others are covered with canvas and painted with whitewash. The corrugated surface is enhanced with assemblages of lipstick (which is present in many of her works), small perfume bottles, rollers, tampons, hair curlers, string, costume jewelry, barbed wire, and glass, among other elements.
My favorite is a collage/assemblage on cardboard showing a small head in the form of a box with a drawing inside and the title, “Lady Woolworth” (1963), painted in gold at the bottom. Her hand is a hairbrush, and a buckle represents her vagina, an ensemble that brings to mind some kind of futuristic dance. Other unusual portraits include those created on napkins, probably in cafes, of her friends Jon Hendricks, Gregory Battcock, and Ethel Scull. “Socialite Napkin”(1975) bears repeated images collaged with a cut up newspaper photo.
Curator Edwards has meticulously re-created the environment of Picard’s happening-performances, with vintage French posters and slides of her landmark events playing on a flat-screen monitor. In happenings such as “Construction-Deconstruction-Construction” (1967, held at Judson Memorial Church in Washington Square), Picard protested the Vietnam War by introducing maimed mannequins and a skewed American-flag quilt. Some of the actual relics of that show are on display here, including a child mannequin hanging upside down, her pantsuit saturated with red and green Day-Glo paint. A black-and-white photo of Picard from the performance presents her wearing an apron and standing in front of an enlarged photograph of a wounded G.I.
As a visual and intermedia artist, Picard is perhaps best known for her feminist performance events and her “cosmetic destructions” such as the poncho-collages she wore during live events, which were in effect giant canvases covered with cut-ups. She has been called “the muse of the American avant-garde,” “a grandmother of the hippies” and even “the Grandma Moses of the Counterculture.”
Despite her diminutive stature, Lil Picard stands tall alongside Sari Dienes, Carolee Schneemann, and Hannah Wilke as a pioneer of the feminist avant-garde.
Note: The Picard archives, which occupied 76 linear feet of storage at the University of Iowa Museum of Art, were rescued by Kathleen A. Edwards from a flood. The museum building was destroyed; Picard’s work lives on.