Whitehot Magazine

July 2011, Lil Picard and Counterculture New York

Untitled (from the performance “Construction-Destruction-Construction,” New York), 1968
Gelatin silver photograph Lil Picard Papers, University of Iowa Libraries


Lil Picard and Counterculture New York

New York University's Grey Art Gallery

New York City, NY
April 20 through July 10, 2010

Iowa Memorial Union, Black Box Theater
Iowa City, IA
February 24 through May 27, 2011


The exhibition Lil Picard and Counterculture New York illustrates a career incorporating the experience of life into visual art, performance art and journalism in rebellion against the conventions of mainstream U.S. society.

Picard (1899-1994) left seventy-six linear feet of material that comprises the Lil Picard Papers at The University of Iowa. Autobiographical observations, personal journals, snapshots, notes, drafts, articles two unpublished works of fiction, poems, audio interviews, and films and images of her past work were all drawn on to create Lil Picard and Counterculture New York a wonderful exhibition put together by Kathleen A. Edwards the Chief Curator at the University of Iowa Museum of Art. The show, which premiered at the Grey Art Gallery in New York and just completed its run in Iowa, told the story of a trailblazing woman whose life reached from one end of the 20th century to the other.

By the time of her death in 1994, Lil Picard's work had been featured in 15 solo exhibitions and included in more than 40 group shows, but her alter ego was as a writer of hundreds of articles about art and artists. Before immigrating to the U.S. she was the fashion editor for German magazines including Der Spiegel and later she introduced Germany to such American artists as Chuck Close, Helen Frankenthaler, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Carolee Schneemann. In the United States she wrote for the Village Voice, East Village Other, Soho Weekly News, Feminist Art Journal, High Performance, Arts Magazine and other publications. Picard even translated Tom Wolfe's 1968 Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test into German.

Picard left her mark on contemporary artists that are still working today. Writer John Perault saw Picard as an elder to whom he looked for experience, raising questions about the veracity of all story-telling. Poet Valery Oisteanu watched her parlay street smarts and ambition into a role as an influential writer who helped shape opinions of American art overseas. The up and coming performer and body artist Carolee Schneemann had many discussions with the older artist about sex and gender and has said that that Picard was a free spirit able to negotiate many different worlds because, as a woman, she was negligible. While the younger female performance artists with whom Picard associated considered her to be worldly wise, it is only in retrospect that we can now place her alongside Schneemann, Sari Dienes, Alison Knowles, May Wilson, and others as an important pioneer in a pre-Feminist avant-garde.

The daughter of a Jewish wine merchant was born Lilli Elizabeth Benedict in southwestern Germany in 1899. After graduating from high school near the French border, she took ballet and singing lessons with the mother of the Dadaist writer Walter Mehring. She studied art and literature in Berlin and Vienna and became a cabaret actress as well as an accessories and hat designer. Her first brush with the pantheon of 20th century artists came when she got to know members of the Berlin Dada group Richard Huelsenbeck, George Grosz, Emmy Hennings and Hugo Ball. Through them, Lil became comfortable with the European avant-garde artist's lifestyle of mingling freely with other artists--a skill that would serve her well in the future.

She took her name from her first marriage to Fritz Picard, an antiquarian bookseller, which ended in divorce in the late 1920's. At age 35 she married Hans O’Dell, a loyal banker, who stayed with her until the end of his life despite a ten year affair Lil later had with the Guatemalan painter Alfred Jensen. When her husband Henry, as he became known, died in the mid-1970's, Lil had been sketching 23 pen and ink portraits of him behind an oxygen mask on his deathbed, one of the final examples, featured in this show, of Picard making art out of the many challenges in her life.

Lil had become a journalist but was forced to relinquish her press credentials because of her Jewish heritage. In one of the films in the exhibition by Silviana Goldsmith, she tells the poignant tale of a familiar elevator operator in her building who turned into a menacing Nazi overnight signaling the realization that it was time to leave. In 1937 she escaped Berlin with her second husband, O'Dell, to New York City. Manhattan was about to become the hub of the international art world, and Picard, raised in European intellectual and artistic circles, was suddenly in her element and never left it. One of her earliest surviving paintings, the abstract “Crossing” from 1947, perhaps references the couple’s trip from Nazi Germany to the new life that awaited them.

Lil Picard, Love, 1958/59
Oil and collage on wood, 11 5/16” x 11 5/16” each
Copyright Estate of Lil Picard

She quickly reestablished herself as an artist and as the owner of the unique millinery shop, “De Lil,” located first in her apartment on Madison Avenue, then on E. 55th Street, and finally at Bloomingdale's department store in 1942. Her outrageous hats were featured in Mademoiselle and other trendy fashion magazines.

Meanwhile Lil Picard’s collage paintings and assemblages of the 1940s and 1950s also became known but not as much as they might have, showing Picard immersed in the styles and ideas of the day. The 1957 Collage in Blue shows the push-pull input of Hans Hoffman, her teacher in a downtown class who was then also influencing those that would eventually create Happenings—an art form she herself would later be drawn to.

When I saw the show in New York, I was surprised to find, stuck in the corner of the basement gallery, three small, gorgeous red, white and green collages with oil from 1957. Her work from this period is bold. Finally, whether it was the influence of her number-obsessed lover Jensen or the achievement of beating Robert Indiana or Jasper Johns to the punch by several years, it is impossible to ignore the importance of her 1958-59 paintings that, way before the pack, spelled out the 26 letters of the alphabet or four doppelgangers in particular that combined as a square to sing the word L-O-V-E.

It was also in 1959 that Picard returned to Europe, visiting Rome and Venice with her husband and the writer Patricia Highsmith. Lil documented this with colorful, thickly layered brush work combined with materials picked up off the street: Schwitters-esque corrugated cardboard, theater tickets, wine and cigarette labels. These works and four similar 1959 paintings on white constitute a final painterly embrace of 2 dimensions with the found objects pushing the limits, exploding into 3 dimensional space and signaling a direction yet to come.

With post–World War II New York now at the center of the art world, Picard began to write about New York artists and their work for German and American publications, meeting younger artists and growing familiar with the intellectual and aesthetic currents of the time. By 1960 we see two boxy sculptural figures clearly marking a complete transition to plaster assemblage which she would continue with until the late 70s. Another transition can be seen in two works called “House” and “Hide and Seek House” that utilize lipstick- not to make marks but utilizing their familiar shape as a sculptural element. She had begun composing sophisticated collages, which were then covered with enamel, oil paint, and whitewash, obliterating the original images. By 1965, Picard’s use of messy gobs of found string, fabric, metallic paper bits, torn and cut parts of product advertisements, as well as hairpins, lipstick, and other make-up elements would attract attention as a striking feminist statement as she entered the burgeoning Happenings and installation milieu.

Thus, by the 1960s Picard was actively involved in the downtown art scene where she frequented Warhol’s Factory and performed at Judson Church in innovative performance art programs produced by Jon Hendricks who was also connected to the Fluxus artists. Picard, who had written in her diary in 1960, “The Cedar Bar and the Club are run by cliques and only young and pretty girls are wanted around, it’s a rat race and a racket of the worst sort,” rejected the macho world of Abstract Expressionism in favor of the fresh new approaches emerging at the time.

She became involved with William Copley’s pre-artist book portfolio, SMS [Shit Must Stop] as well as the NO! Art group, co-founded by Boris Lurie, a Russian-born artist who survived the Holocaust and then depicted its horrors leading the confrontational movement. Finally, several decades older than other groundbreaking female performance artists, she became an early practitioner of sociopolitical Happenings and performance art. She participated in the nascent performance scene through artist Charlotte Moorman’s annual Avant Garde Festivals, demonstrating her feminist and political concerns in performances that criticized the Vietnam War and the manipulation of women by media and advertising.

At age 65 in 1964, she performed publicly for the first time at Café au Go in a piece called The Bed with a kind of striptease from an electric bed assisted by the dancer Meredith Monk. The bed was a theme that preoccupied Picard throughout her performance career--perhaps a symbol for the body and what it has been through, a growing feminist focus. She often utilized bed sheets as sculpture, with their white color suggesting purity or peace. Other performances featuring sheets or beds included Bed Sheet Event, 1969; Working from Bed, 1971 and 1972; White Sheets and Quiet Dots, 1974 and 1976 (including performance artist Hannah Wilke); Bed Tease, 1978 and 1980; and Bed Paint, 1981.

Lil Picard, 9 Wigs, c. 1970
Nine gelatin silver photographs taped together
Copyright Estate of Lil Picard

In 1965, Lil Picard met Andy Warhol at the Stable Gallery through his assistant and collaborator, the poet Gerard Malanga. More than one group photograph taken at The Factory includes Picard. She was an avid Factory fan and had close relationships with several of Warhol's actors and collaborators. Her sense of what an artist was came from 1920s Berlin café society and she was attracted to Andy’s avant-garde community scene because it was similar. Her riveting and important performance piece Construction-Destruction- Construction (C-D-C) took place at The Factory, featured Al Hansen, Taylor Meade, Viva, Kate Millet, Nam June Paik and others and was filmed by Warhol and appears in Warhol's 1968 **** (Four Stars). Warhol also included Picard in Brand X, and she played Warhol's mother in his film autobiography. She wrote about Warhol for various publications, and she also wrote for Interview, beginning in 1969, when it was founded by Warhol and Malanga.

In many of her performances, Picard utilized the methods of destruction art made famous by Gustav Metzger and her frequent collaborator Ralph Ortiz. "I work with the idea of destruction and construction,” she said in a 1974 statement, “dematerialization and symbolic references to our society, to the political, sociological, environmental situation and I try through Art and Self-Performance to help to achieve change for values of humane and spiritual conditions in life." Picard wrote that about her 1965 environment piece 1965-2065-2165. She was also burnt her husband’s silk ties and famously displayed them in Metzger’s Destruction in Art Symposium.

A folksy material used by Picard and seen frequently in the show was the common restaurant napkin. She drew on one inside panel with a liquid ink pen, then blotted the drawing with the other side of the napkin, creating a kind of ghost print or “dematerialization” that was influenced by Lucy Lippard’s 1973 book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972.

Picard also sketched portraits of famous friends including all of the above as well as friends named Beuys, Lichtenstein, Johns, Rosenquist, Rivers, as well as herself (with her name on her glasses) on napkins (as well as in notebooks and on scraps of paper, sitting in restaurants, listening to lectures, or watching performances) as a funky extension of the journalistic interview, a means to "converse" with her subjects in a friendly, intimate fashion.

Conversely, a biting set of bug sketches from 1975 she called the Earwig Series, divides “superstars” from “less important Hampton visitors” and provides a social critique of a place and time in need of her signature artistic skewering.

By the time Picard died of natural causes in 1994, she “knew everyone and tried everything.” A new generation of artists converging on the downtown scene uniting artists and audience in "environments," “events," and "Happenings," found Picard was already there, believing that art could maintain an individual's quest for "transcendence, self-actualization, and intimate community" and uniquely positioned to engage herself in projects that critiqued the politics of feminism, Vietnam and Watergate as well as social and cultural mores. It was often said that Lil Picard never missed an exhibition opening. Well if you missed this one by an underappreciated but not understated fixture on the New York scene, you missed a lot.

Lil Picard, Hide and Seek House, 1960
Lil Picard Collection, University of Iowa Museum of Art

Mark Bloch

Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at bloch.mark@gmail.com and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.



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