The following is a guest commentary by Kathleen Edwards from the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
Kathleen A. Edwards is chief curator at the UI Museum of Art and curator of “Lil Picard and Counterculture New York,” which will be on exhibit from Feb. 23 to May 27 in the Black Box Theater of the Iowa Memorial Union.
How did a German Jewish cabaret performer escape the Nazis to become a world-famous artist, feminist and activist?
And why did her estate give her works and papers to the University of Iowa?
Learn the answers to these questions and more by visiting a new UIMA exhibition, Lil Picard and Counterculture New York, and by attending or listening in to the next WorldCanvass program at 5 p.m. Friday in the Old Capitol Museum.
Lil Picard and Counterculture New York also offers a performance art film series and public talks by renowned feminist performance artist Carolee Schneemann in March and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Menand in April.
Only in America, but with a twist — only in New York City in the ’60s and ’70s, in the hot spot of the art world, could a refugee German Jewish cabaret performer, born Lilli Elisabeth Benedick in 1899, become Lil Picard, artist, feminist, activist and self-reinventor.
Picard brought an orchestra of techniques from the major movements of the European avant-garde when she fled the Nazis in 1937 to settle in Manhattan, where she produced her major works during the years of the counterculture and its rejection of the Vietnam War, racial segregation and traditional sexual mores.
For Lil Picard, the downtown art scene of Manhattan was a perfect fit. She already was making “collage-paintings” and assemblages in the 1940s when her friend, the author Patricia Highsmith, introduced her to the New York School and the Tenth Street galleries.
Like Kurt Schwitters, she used street trash and her own cast-offs to create art; earlier than many others she created happenings and performance art. There too she became a friend of and mentor to such groundbreaking female performance artists as Hannah Wilke and Yoko Ono, who were decades younger than she was.
Picard had discovered a place where she could continue her quest for “transcendence, self-actualization and intimate community.”
Donated to UI in 1994, Lil Picard’s artwork is held by the UI Museum of Art and her papers are located in UI Libraries’ Special Collections. At the museum, Picard’s work joins one of the most significant collections of modern art at a university art museum and provides yet another example of UI’s long tradition of support for scholarly and creative innovation in the arts.
The exhibition is just the tip of the iceberg. The Lil Picard Collection at the UI Museum of Art includes more than 700 objects and the papers in Special Collections measures 76 linear feet. The material is a treasure trove for primary source research regarding many subjects including:
• The history of Strasburg at the end of World War I.
• The café and cabaret milieu in 1920s to early 1930s Berlin.
• Andy Warhol and The Factory.
• 1960s-1970s feminist performance art.
• And the relationship between the arts and the New York counterculture.
Picard also was a savvy writer and art journalist. While she wrote for such American publications as Village Voice and translated Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” to German, she was introducing American pop and feminist artists to the German public in magazines like Kunstwerk.
The New Yorker called “Lil Picard and Counterculture New York” “part corrective, part window into how art makes it into the canon.” Where else but in a major research university can the public, scholars, faculty and students access such unrivaled material? And today access is what it’s all about.
In place of a traditional exhibition catalogue, the UI Museum of Art created the website http://lilpicard.org.
Log on, tune in to Worldcanvass and turn on!