There is no great argument made or deep meaning to be found in “In Conversation: Black,” nor is it a scholarly exhibition.
Instead, it brings together objects that have one thing in common -- they are all black.
Some like, like Ad Reinhardt’s 1966 silkscreen on plexiglass “Abstract Print,” are entirely black. In others, like Donald Sultan’s 1988 tar, oil and spackle painting on wood “Three Old Limes and an Orange,” black is a dominant background.
Located in three gallery spaces on the second floor, south side of the Sheldon Museum of Art, “In Conversation” is comprised of 21 photographs, prints, paintings, sculptures and mixed media works drawn from Sheldon’s collection along with those of Karen and Robert Duncan and Kathryn and Marc LeBaron.
The oldest object in the exhibition is Adolph Gottlieb’s 1953 “Black, Unblack” oil painting, which finds black, letter-like images across a black, gray and brown field -- a very representative piece from the abstract expressionist movement. .
The newest works are Michelle Grabner’s 2016 large, circular “Untitled,” that uses flashe (a vinyl “paint”) on gesse to create concentric circles that pull the viewer deeper into the piece and Devan Shimoyama’s “Shroud II,” a giant 2017 mixed media hooded jacket made from velvet, feathers and sequins.
Those three pieces are found in the first of the three galleries along with John Divola’s 2008 photograph “Dark Star,” the pieces that prompted Sheldon Director and Chief Curator Wally Mason to put together the exhibition and Joyce Pensato’s “Mr. MotoMickey,” a white drenched 2006 painting that has a thick-lined black outline of Mickey emerging from the white field and drips.
The second gallery contains the Sultan painting and Fred Wilson’s captivating 2009 “Bat,” a Murano Glass wall sculpture, a two-layered piece with ornate borders around its reflective surfaces -- both from the LeBaron collection.
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The gallery also houses the exhibition’s photographs, which include two striking images from 1961: Roy DeCarava’s “Coat Hanger in Restaurant,” a haunting interior shot in near darkness and Czech photographer Josef Sudek’s evocative view of a candle on a table surrounded by bushes and trees, “Reminiscences: Coming of Silence.”
Whether intentionally designed to do so or not, the third gallery throws the exhibtion’s biggest punches, bringing together the show’s biggest names in rarely seen works from Sheldon’s collection.
Along with Reinhardt’’s print, that grouping includes “Tuftonboro,” a Frank Stella lithograph from 1974 that explores angular, geometric compositions, echoing his wall sculptures of the same era and “Rosa Parks,” a 1987 paintstik on screen print and coated paper with oil and ink by Richard Serra,
Serra, best known as a sculptor -- his “Greenpoint” stands in the center of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, created the piece’s by pushing the paintstick through the silkscreen, creating a thick, nearly glossy surface on the angular black passage.
Completing the room is the exhibition’s most compelling piece -- Martin Puryear’s large, black 2001-02 wood sculpture, “The Nightmare.” Modeled on a gourd, “The Nightmare,” with its title and mechanical-looking add ons to the surface, says “bomb” to me -- making it a powerful, resonant work.
“On Conversation: Black” is located in what formerly were known as Sheldon’s permanent collection galleries. Unlike most museums, Sheldon has, for years, regularly changed out the galleries, creating small exhibitions largely drawn from its collection.
That’s a perfect use for the space -- if, for no other reason that to show work, like the Serra, that has spent most of its life in storage. And “In Conversation: Black” demonstrates how those small exhibitions can be illuminating, even if it’s not trying to make any kind of big point.