1968 was, to understate things, a tumultuous year.
Internationally, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to quash a political liberation there, students and trade unionists protested and rioted in France and the war in Vietnam approached its peak, with the Tet Offensive demonstrating the U.S. could not “win” the conflict.
On the homefront, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Riots took place in many American cities following King's death. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago was marred by violent protests and a police riot.
Like the rest of society, artists and the art world dealt with the upheavals, joined social movements and reflected the world around them.
To look at 1968, the Sheldon Museum of Art has reconfigured its permanent collection galleries into six mini-exhibitions.
Titled “Re-Seeing the Permanent Collection: The Long 1968,” the exhibitions, all drawn from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln museum’s permanent collection, have their roots in another campus event.
“This was based on the fact that there’s a Prague Spring conference on campus this semester,” said Sheldon director and chief curator Wally Mason. “We started working with a history professor and that led us down this path.”
That path allowed Sheldon to show, for the first time, its extensive collection of rock posters and a rare print portfolio from artists against the war and revisit the U.S. section of a 1968 international art exhibition curated by the small, university museum from Nebraska.
It brought out photographs directly linked to Prague, work from a '60s art movement and provided the occasion for a guest curator to find an exhibition about the past and future from its holdings.
“We took 1968 and drove a truck through it,” Mason said. “It’s that vast an idea.”
Here’s a look at the six mini-exhibitions that will be on view through July 29:
Psychedelic rock posters
Opening “The Long 1968” is a wall of psychedelic rock posters from San Francisco from 1966 to 1968.
Exhibited en masse for the first time, the posters were published by the Family Dog, the rock promotion company formed by Chet Helms in 1966 that began the Bay Area psychedelic ballroom scene.
To spread the word about the live events, the Family Dog recruited a handful of graphic artists to design posters and handbills. Those most influential of those artists, now known as the “San Francisco Five” were Rick Griffin, Alton Kelley, Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse and Wes Wilson -- all of whom are well represented among the 60 posters that are hung edge-to-edge on the gallery wall.
The oldest, and likely most historically important, are a pair of relatively plain works by Wilson and Helms, especially “King King,” a poster for a Feb. 26, 1966, Fillmore Auditorium show headlined by the Great Society, the group led by Grace Slick before she joined the Jefferson Airplane.
Because they come from the Family Dog, the posters are primarily for shows at the Avalon Ballroom, many of them headlined by Quicksilver Messenger Service. There are no Grateful Dead posters on the wall.
But there are posters for many of the San Francisco acts, like Big Brother and the Holding Company, Moby Grape, Country Joe and the Fish and the Charlatans as well as those promoting appearances by the Velvet Underground (who didn’t go over at all with the hippie crowd) and Texas psychedelic pioneers, the 13th Floor Elevators.
A striking archive of the era, the posters are an eye-grabbing sampling of the work of the artists that was as psychedelic in its own way as the music it promoted.
The posters combine dramatically reworked text and imagery from the Victorian era, pop and op art, Art Nouveau and the artists’ imaginations -- and continue to be captivating five decades after they were hung in windows and pasted on walls and light poles.
There’s just one piece from 1968, Gladys Nisson’s watercolor “Big Ugly” included in the “Chicago Imagists” gallery. But the space nonetheless serves to illustrate the work of the group of artists that came together on the South Side of Chicago in the mid '60s and became known as the Chicago Imagists.
Typified by depictions of the body in vibrant color and distorted figurization, the work of the Chicago Imagists challenged convention, deliberately aiming at making “unacceptable” art that folded in folk art, comic books and surrealism.
And those artists continued to make that kind of work through the decades. So the key objects in “Chicago Imagists” are from the '80s through the 2000s.
They include: “Sip,” Jim Nutt’s highly distorted 2003 painting of the head of a woman; “Galapagos,” a large, brightly colored triptych-style painting by Ed Paschke that finds fuzzy, vague images of people smoking under bright fields of pink, green and blue; and “Oral Roberts’ Vision of a Two Mile High Jesus,” a 1984 surrealist-influenced painting by Roger Brown.
The gallery also includes a pair of works from H.C. Westermann, whose early work, like the 1955 ebony and bronze sculpture “Dead Man About to Meet His Maker” reflected the same concerns as the imagists and whose later pieces, such as “Death Ship of No Port” fit with the work of the younger generation of artists
'Revising the Future'
“Revising the Future” is a small exhibition curated by Bridget R. Cooks, a professor of art history and African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, who will be delivering a Humanities on the Edge lecture at Sheldon in April.
It’s comprised of 12 art works, most of which were created during the mid-century Civil Rights Movement, that address, according to her statement “themes of uncertainty and wonder about the future” and “feelings of dislocation, curiosity, and hope that continue to be part of our human condition.”
The theme of uncertainty is best expressed in “Graduation,” a 1949 photography by Roy DeCarava that shows a girl, wearing a white dress from her graduation, walking through a trash filled lot -- an image that Cooks notes forces speculation as to what her future might bring.
Similarly, “Poet #4,” a 1954 oil on masonite by Hughie Lee-Smith, depicts a man in the foreground and a woman farther back being blown by the wind to who knows where.
The geometric abstractions of Alice Trumbull Mason, a 1969 set of black-and-white rectangles titled “Trinity #10” and Al Loving’s brightly colored “Untitled (Hexagonal Composition),” a 1967-69 piece that combines six triangles into a hexagon can be seen as raising the possibilities of wonder, inspiration and hope of the new.
The two most powerful pieces in the mini-exhibition are the most grounded -- Gordon Parks’ 1967 photograph “Race of Poverty” and Carrie Mae Weems’ 1992 plate “Commemorating,” a striking reminder of how far we have to go in dealing with race and rights in America.
“I can’t imagine anybody on our staff putting together this exhibition,” Mason said. “Individually, and as a staff, we don’t think that way. ... That makes it very valuable.”
Josef Sudek: Poet of Prague
In 1968, Sheldon became the first U.S. museum to exhibit the work of Czech photographer Josef Sudek, when it included a number of his pictures in a group show titled “Five Photographers” that also included, among others, work by Garry Winogrand.
Subsequently, Sheldon acquired 26 Sudek prints for its permanent collection, all of which are displayed in the gallery.
Sudek (1896-1976) lived through both the Nazi and Soviet occupations of his homeland. But his photographs aren’t the documentation of tanks rolling through the streets or the joyous liberation of the Prague Spring.
Instead, the photographs are quiet views of Sudek’s world, including many shot in a “Magical Little Garden” and taken out the window of his studio. The most interesting images are a series titled “Reminiscences” that have a dreamlike quality, a view most explicit in 1959’s “Reminiscences: Of Dreams,” which finds a ghostly man floating in a chair in the garden.
Also of note is the pairing of “Sunday Siesta,” a 1958 view of a small village, and “Sunday Afternoon,” a near panoramic look at a couple in a garden.
“They’re solemn, they’re very, very slow,” Mason said of Sudek’s photographs. “It’s a moment that has gone by. People don’t make this kind of photography anymore. There’s a limited audience. But those people come out when they know his work is up.”
Sudek photographs are the portion of “The Long 1968” most closely tied to the exhibition's origins. They are displayed in conjunction with “Prague Spring 50,” a major international symposium that will be presented by the Department of History in April.
1968 Venice Biennale
In 1967, the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and its founding director Norman Geske were chosen to organize the U.S. Pavilion at the 1968 Venice Biennale, the prestigious international art exhibition presented every two years in Venice, Italy.
The selection of Sheldon and Geske was a shock to many in the art world as was Geske’s curatorial selections, aimed, in his words from the catalog to “demonstrate the continuing vitality of the figurative tradition in recent American art.”
That conservative approach was criticized as not representative of contemporary art in the era that saw the rise of minimalism and conceptual art.
The Sheldon gallery includes a pair of paintings that were shown in the 1968 Biennale -- Edwin Dickinson’s 1926 “Girl on a Tennis Court,” a fine example of a “premiere coup” by the artist about whom Geske was one of the acknowledged experts, and Byron Burford’s “Homage to Clyde,” a 1966 depiction of “lion tamer” Clyde Beatty doing his circus act with four lions.
The remainder of the mini-exhibition is representative examples of the work of the 10 artists Geske selected for the Biennale. Most notable among those pieces are 12 intaglio prints taken from a little exhibited portfolio by Richard Diebenkorn, “41 Etchings Drypoint,” that were created in 1964-65 and are very representative of Diebenkorn’s work at the time of the Biennale.
The gallery includes a painting that will be familiar to regular Sheldon visitors -- Fairfield Porter’s lovely 1958 depiction of a woman and two little girl,s “Annie, Lizzie and Katie.”
And there’s another work that seems to be directly tied to the Venice exhibition. Artist Red Grooms traveled to Italy to see his work in the Biennale, then apparently took a European vacation. From that emerged the 1969-painted wood narrative of a couple in a car driving down a road, “Red & Mimi Tour Yugoslavia.”
'Against the War in Viet Nam'
In 1967, 16 visual artists and 18 poets contributed work for a portfolio assembled by the antiwar group Artist & Writers Protest, Inc. Only 100 copies of the portfolio, titled “Artists and Writers Against the War in Viet Nam,” were sold, one of which, No. 27, was acquired by Sheldon.
The 16 prints in the portfolio are being exhibited together for the first time in “The Long 1968” with the oversize poetry book on view in a wall vitrine.
Many of the artists who contributed to the portfolio have passed into the “where are they now” file. But the portfolio does contain pieces by still notable artists.
They include Leon Golub, a painter whose work dealt directly with power, politics and sexuality. His print “Killed Youth” finds a screaming dark redhead hovering over the figurative imagery below -- a powerful take on the deaths of more than 58,000 young American servicemen and women in the two-decade Southeast Asian war.
Sculptor Mark di Suvero, whose 1986 steel beam monumental piece “Old Glory” stands in the middle of the UNL city campus, contributed an untitled, text-rooted print that, on its top line, reads “LBJohnson: MURDERER” and on the bottom, “ONLY YOU can stop this war.”
And Ad Reinhardt's print is classic Reinhardt, an abstract expressionist painter, and politically committed graphic artist. Also untitled, it's a postcard sent to "War Chief, Washington, D.C." that starts a long list with "No war" then "No Imperialism."
Many of the prints are highly graphic and not particularly political, even though art historian Max Kozloff wrote that “these visual and verbal images are meant to testify to their authors’ deep alarm over a violence which ... has been impossible to ignore.
That said, some continue to strongly resonate, especially William N. Copley’s untitled black-and-white print of an American flag with “THINK” inserted in place of the star field.