A cabaret performer in Berlin before World War II. An artist in New York scavenging the streets for collage materials in the 1940’s. A journalist covering the art scene in New York in the fifties. A pioneering performance artist in early ’60’s “happenings” (think Cafe a Go Go). An habitue of Warhol’s factory who appeared in his films and wrote for Interview.
You’d think someone with this resume would be famous. But you’ve probably never heard of Lil Picard. I know I hadn’t.
She was born in Berlin just before the turn of the century. By the ’30’s, she’d been an actress, designer and journalist. But Picard was Jewish and escaped to New York in 1937. After opening a shop as Surrealist hat designer, she studied with Hans Hofmann and began painting seriously in the 1940’s.
Her early works combined oil paint with found ephemera, like theatre tickets and cigarette packages. Picard’s art was metaphysical, but it was always personal, too. She drew on napkins. She took snapshots and put them in her paintings. There was a diaristic quality to her art. When she had surgery, she painted a narrative of her surgery.
Yes, metaphysics was in the air. Found materials had been stuck on canvas since Picasso. And Frida Kahlo had already painted her medical experiences. Picard may not have been first, but she had a unique take on everything.
She said herself, in her diaryin 1959, “I know I have this talent to adapt myself to latest fashion trends, which is unfortunate—but on the other hand it was proven to me time and time again that my instinctive, intuitive, “going” for something, is the right thing to do.”
Around this time, she also began covering the NY art scene as a journalist for both German and American periodicals. But her role in the ’50s was a challenging one. At the end of the decade, she wrote in her diary:
““The situation of a woman as a painter in New York (at my age) is not easy to handle. 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.”
Picard used her pique. At a time when the women Abstract Expressionists tended to paint like men, Picard adopted a blatantly female “vocabulary” in her collages. She made a series of female figures on canvas out of familiar beauty products—costume jewelry, curlers and hairpins, lipsticks, rouge, emery boards.
In the ’60’s, she began to create “environments.” Again, her central materials were the paraphernalia of “beauty.”
In her “1965-2065-2165” installation, a “cave” filled with cosmetics of the day led to an “arena” where gallery-goers could play with lipstick and blush. A sound collage provided an early mash-up. n the 2065 “cave,” assemblages and collages suggested archeological finds of the future—a rubble of hairspray and lip gloss encrusted in styrofoam.
How avant garde was this? The concept apparently is a stretch even today. I googled the title of the work above, “Cosmetic Destruction.” Google asked if I didn’t mean “Cosmic Destruction.” This even though “Destruction in Art’ is so current it’s the subject of a just-opened show at the Hirschhorn Museum in D.C.
Where could Picardgo from here? For her further adventures in destruction, surrealism, and Andy Warhol, see the next post.
Image Credits: All images are from the exhibition, “Lil Picard and Counterculture New York,” curated by Kathleen A. Edwards.
Visit the exhibition website for much more!