headlines | about |

Boris and Lil and Jean, Still Lost in the Forest of Arden

Lil Picard and Counterculture New York
Grey Art Gallery, NYU
April 20 - July 10, 2010

Like gaseous bubbles through the stagnant green waters over tar pits, forgotten artists from the past occasionally exhibit in New York. These exhibitions can often burst with noxious fumes of archival decomposition. Of course the art works of the dead are mangled and mishandled. Their messages – or for those you don't like that phrase, the living force of their life's work – is always and already misconstrued.

This was the powerful sense I had upon visiting the exhibition “Lil Picard and Counterculture New York” at the NYU Grey Gallery. I knew Lil Picard (1900-1994) first as a curious European antique – one of the grande dames of the Fluxus circle when I was a babe in the woods of NYC. Much later, I read her writing for the East Village Other, where she was an impassioned partisan of the anti-war avant garde of the 1960s. This show filled that picture in some by showing that Lil Picard also was part of this group. She wrote as a critic, for money (in German) and for love (in the EVO), but she was also an artist. That “also” got her slapped as a Sunday painter by the professionalized U.S. avant-garde.

But, as Valery Oisteanu writes in the Brooklyn Rail, Lil “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.” Valery – of Surrealist affinities, a sonorous poetic voice, collagist, and by now himself a curious European antique – points obliquely in this text to the Destruction in Art group, an international avant-garde with its NYC center at the Judson Church where poet Jon Hendricks held sway.

The Destruction group was, in the late 1960s, in the vanguard of artists who tried to bring their urgent political concerns into the center of cultural life. They were also supported by texts penned by Richard Hulbeck, now a retired psychoanalyst living in NYC. This was the same man who had been Huelsenbeck, partner in art-crimes of Der Oberdada in Berlin. Lil knew this Richard in Berlin, “back in the day.” John Perrault's notice of the Grey show is titled “Lil Picard: Mother Dada.” That is the fact, and the neglect of it is the source of the “noxious fumes” I alluded to above. Lil Picard was discussed at NYU as “Grandmother of the Hippies” in a symposium moderated by an expert in the French modernist avant-garde.

Lil Picard, 9 Wigs, c. 1970, nine gelatin silver photographs taped together, © Estate of Lil Picard, University of Iowa Museum of Art

With this we are in the territory of my favorite paranoid artworld analyst, who would point out the cultural repetition compulsion in Francophilic New York of a putative Gaullist victory over the occupying Nazis, here represented as the French version of Dada, shoplifted by Breton from the hapless Romanian youngster Tzara in Paris, and sublimed into Surrealism. When, in fact, the “grandmother” we are concerned with – (also called “Grandma Moses of the Counterculture,” as if the smell of unwashed '60s youth were not yet enough, and to it must be added the aroma of the American barnyard) – was a Jewish refugee from Berlin.
Huelsenbeck with Hausmann authored the 1919 manifesto: “What Is Dadaism and What Does it Want in Germany?”: Numero uno on the list: “Dadaism demands: The international revolutionary union of all creative and intellectual men and women on the basis of radical Communism.”

Well, clearly, this we cannot abide. Despite that Robert Motherwell published this text in 1951, the chill of the Cold War remains part of the DNA of curators and professors in NYC (especially at a “business university”). These agile woodland creatures have a hardwired sixth sense about how to avoid the “ha has” erected around the vital interests of their respective institutions. Lucy Lippard pegged it in an essay title a decade ago: “Too Political? Forget It.” “Counterculture,” okay. “Communism,” no.

That is my brief. Two universities, in their zeal to whitewash Lil in the manner of William Rubin, have ignored the living connection to the most vital strain of political art in Western Europe which she most fully represented. Why St. Rubin? He was the author of the first Great Whitewash, the “Dada and Surrealism” exhibition of 1968, vigorously protested on the street by the Happening group convened by Gene Swenson, and in the galleries of MoMA itself by Destruction artists. These demonstrations were approved of to the New York Times by two visiting maestros, Duchamp and Dali. The rumpus continued when Rubin's show went to Chicago, where it was met by contempt from the Rosemonts and their gang, the certified Chicago Surrealists.

There's more. Lil's 1967 performance “Construction / Destruction / Construction,” which took place at Judson Memorial Church and was repeated at Warhol’s Factory, included her Destruction art buddies Jon Hendricks, Ralph Ortiz and Jean Toche – identified as “Jean Touche” (as in too-shay?) in the exhibition. Toche and Hendricks were the motormen behind the Guerrilla Art Action Group, the GAAG, which staged numerous radical anti-war and anti-Rockefeller actions in museums in the early 1970s. (Silvianna Goldsmith, whose film of Lil is shown in the basement of the Grey Gallery, was also involved with GAAG.)

Jean Toche, now living alone and neglected in Staten Island, continues to produce political art, most recently gathered in a show called “Impressions from the Rogue Bush Imperial Presidency” in North Carolina. An interview with him is published in a pamphlet by the Chicago group Temporary Services. A reviewer writes of the show of garishly colored polemical poster art at Duke University, “Since his move from Belgium to New York in 1965, Toche seems not to have wavered in his tenacious pursuit of commitment to a life of art, protest and subversive antics.” (In other work, Toche advocated for fair housing on Staten Island, earning him hate mail and death threats, unabated to this day.) Another antique European, albeit one about whom the institutions of his adopted hometown remain incurious. Too-shay.

Valery Oisteanu's text continues with a litany of Lil Picard's collective engagements, writing: “she was briefly involved with William Copley’s so-called loft group of artists,” and that Lil “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.” The NO! Art group showed what must have been the original bloody trash collaborative protest collage installations at the March Gallery in the early 1960s. These assemblages of toy soldiers, dress dummies, and globs and globs – (Goodman famously held a “Shit Show” at the March) – were dismissed with an anonymous backhand comment by Irving Sandler in his history of the 1960s, and left out of Allan Kaprow's landmark 1965 book. (Sandler was on the panel at NYU celebrating Lil as a proto-hippie.) In my mind, these “catsup art” works somehow link up with the bulk of the work in Lil's show, white-painted retail cosmetics display modules – blood and milk?
The kingpin of NO! art, Boris Lurie (1924-2008) also had a show in New York this summer, at the Westwood Gallery. The exhibition is modest compared to that of Lil Picard, with a group of some 40-odd works showing Boris working through various figurative strategies, like the big-eyed Chagallesque expressionism favored by his friend Sam Goodman, and line drawings with echoes of Picasso and Dubuffet.

The work which made his name – the overpainted and collaged soft-core porn images of the 1960s – is also on display, although the most famous one is not. With that one shocking image out, it is possible to see the others. This stridently anti-Pop artist's work prefigures the present-day Prince of neo-Pop, Richard, in the “Nurse” series with his appropriated and overpainted images of women in soft-porn contexts. (Prince stole hardish-core porn steps, too, appropriating Hell's Angels gang girls' orgy images in his prints.)

The dimensions of the NO! art refusal do not come through in the Westwood Gallery show. This was the real Neo-Dada, approved by Duchamp and Man Ray who attended the NO! art opening in Paris not long after Man Ray's “Object to Be Destroyed” had been dragged from a gallery and done for in the street by a bunch of young artists. About this same time Leo Castelli was cashing checks on the “Neo-Dada” brand from the Museum of Modern Art.
Like Lil, Boris Lurie was an artist who wrote a good deal. (The website has a group of his texts.) Still, it is safe to say that there will be a further shot at figuring NO! art out, since in his spare time Boris made a shitpile of money which is now at the disposal of a foundation dedicated to the principles of NO!
I shouldn't carp at Kathleen A. Edwards, a curator who is a physical hero, having rescued the Lil Picard papers from a devastating flood in Iowa. Operating through their website, and in consort with the NYU Grey Gallery, the University of Iowa apparatus has shown what an out-of-town scholarly museum can do given the dramatic aporias of memory in the NYC institutional artworld. There are many remote repositories of the culture built in this global city which might take a lesson from Iowa.

Still, the show is marred by a stunted and immature address of the cultural politics at the core of Lil Picard's art and life, which is especially surprising given the University of Iowa's longstanding high profile within Dada studies. At NYU, the politics of Lil Picard has largely come to rest within the bulging historical edifice of the feminist. Feminists often conveniently forget their movement's deep roots in radical culture, politics and theory. The blazing glow of Warhol, too, has absorbed Lil's memory in its nimbus. (She wrote for his magazine Interview, and spoke with him often. Andy filmed her “C-D-C” performance. Lil loved parties.) It is far more difficult to untangle the resistant strains of anti-capitalist art in 1960s New York of which Lil was very much a part.

Photos and press release of Lil Picard at the Grey Art Gallery

Click here for Flickr sideshow.

Culled from press releases by curator Kathleen A. Edwards:

Lil Picard, a pioneering artist who played varied and vital — but under-acknowledged — roles in the New York art world during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, receives in this exhibition the first American museum retrospective of her work.

Born in Landau, Germany in 1899, Lil Picard worked as a cabaret actress, accessories designer, and journalist in the heady, avant-garde art scene of 1930s Berlin. Forced to relinquish her press credentials because of her Jewish heritage, she escaped Berlin with her second husband, Dell, in 1937 and quickly reestablished herself in New York as an artist, and as the owner of the unique millinery shop De Lil.

Picard continued to work as a journalist in New York, writing for Arts Magazine, East Village Other, and Interview, and several German publications, among others. She also began painting and making collages and assemblages, and began frequenting Andy Warhol's Factory and mingling with cohorts like Carolee Schneemann and her famous lovers, Al Jensen and Ad Reinhardt.

Lil Picard’s collage paintings and assemblages of the 1940s and 1950s combine colorful, thickly layered, active brushstrokes with the detritus of everyday existence: theater tickets, wine bottle and cigarette labels, scraps of clothing, materials picked up off the street. The works reflect the artist’s simultaneous engagement with both the past and the present. Beginning with the vigorous, expressive brushstrokes of her early work "Crossing", 1947, the exhibition follows Picard's move toward the dynamic and brightly colored collaged canvases of the 1950s. The four-paneled "Love", 1958-59 and the complex "Collage in Blue", 1957, with their active, highly tactile surfaces, reflect the artist's simultaneous engagement with both the past and the present.

An early practitioner of sociopolitical happenings and performance art, Picard was several decades older than other groundbreaking female performance artists such as Schneemann and Hannah Wilke. At age 65 she performed publicly for the first time at Café au Go Go. She frequented the Judson Church alternative space in innovative performance art programs produced by Jon Hendricks, and she participated in the nascent performance scene through artist Charlotte Moorman’s annual Avant Garde Festivals. Both culturally and politically aware, Picard demonstrated her feminist and antiwar concerns in performances that criticized the Vietnam War and the manipulation of women by media and advertising.

Throughout her career, Picard referred to her own life in her art. Her autobiographical observations and experiences — recorded in personal journals, snapshots, and notes, as well as in drafts, published articles and images of her past work — were all fodder for, and were often incorporated into, her visual and performance art.

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. Drawn entirely from the Lil Picard Collection and the Lil Picard Papers at the University of Iowa, Lil Picard and Counterculture New York sheds much-needed light on a remarkable woman whose life spanned a century and her long career devoted to art, performance art, and journalism.