“Is there something inherently stimulating in the poetry called ‘minor,’” John Ashbery once asked, “something it can do for us when major poetry can only wring its hands?” This question came to mind as I was perusing the videos, sculptures and paintings on view in a retrospective devoted to the little-known artist Lil Picard, who died in 1994 at the age of 95. University of Iowa Museum of Art chief curator Kathy Edwards, who organized the show, makes no bones about her intent to fit Picard into the art historical canon, inviting people to visit the university in order to dig into “the seventy-six linear feet” comprising its Lil Picard Papers. As one who hovered longingly on the periphery of the art world, Picard offers a unique perspective through a “minor” art that, precisely by its exclusion, cast a singular light on the “major” art unfolding at the center of the New York scene.
Picard seems to have approached art as if it were a delightful buffet, and there is almost no style or movement—AbEx, Fluxus and Happenings, Conceptual and Feminist art—that she didn’t taste. Yet she had a relatively late start. An émigré born in Berlin, Picard was in her 40s when she began making collaged paintings and assemblages, after her friend, the author Patricia Highsmith, took her on a visit to the 10th Street galleries in 1947. Picard, who at the time owned a hat shop called De Lil, took to the nascent downtown scene like a fish to water, possibly because of her experience in the café society of Berlin, where she had worked as a cabaret actress and then a journalist before fleeing the Nazis in 1937.
However fascinating Picard’s life was (and this show barely scratches the surface), her art is uneven: the AbEx paintings are competent but uninspired, and Conceptualist pieces such as Self Portrait (Dematerialization), 1974, in which repeated Xeroxes of her portrait eventually fade to nothing, feel forced. Her assemblages, full of witty details, are the best expression of her eccentricity. Lady Woolworth (1963) portrays a stylish dame with a torso composed of empty lipstick tubes, makeup brushes for arms and a pertly penciled face, all on a 2-foot-wide piece of cardboard.
Picard fearlessly critiqued the exclusive, male-dominated art world. Ear Wig Series (1974), for example, employs dead insects to represent the “in crowd” of the East Hampton art scene. Yet she desperately wanted in, and to an extent she succeeded. Andy Warhol filmed Construction-Destruction-Construction (C-D-C), her 1967 antiwar performance piece, which is partially re-created with slides, props and assorted relics, but to little effect. Given his penchant for discovering outsiders, it’s not surprising that Warhol embraced her—and, indeed, cast her in several films. A poignant 1981 film by Silvianna Goldsmith on view captures Picard’s charm and vivacity as the artist recounts the flux of the New York art world between the mid-’40s and the late ’70s. While Picard offers a juicy account of the volatility and excitement of the period, it is her very story and personality, more than her art, that best attests to the shifts in modernism that she lived through.
[“Lil Picard and Counterculture New York” will be on view at the University of Iowa Museum of Art, Feb. 24-May 15, 2011.]
Photo: Lil Picard: Lady Woolworth, 1963, assemblage on cardboard, 28 by 24 inches; at the Grey Art Gallery.