Ian Hamilton Finlay

Originally, this show was to have consisted entirely of new work by Ian Hamilton Finlay. But because of the artist’s many current commitments, particularly in Europe, the plans had to be modified and it became an exhibition of 22 works dating from 1966 to 1986. The effect was to stress the relevance of Finlay’s roots in the poetry of the ’60s to his present artistic activities. Curator Yves Abrioux, in his catalogue essay, remarks that Finlay’s works are “simultaneously authoritative and speculative,” echoing an often quoted statement of the artist on his efforts at concrete poetry: Finlay wrote in 1963 that he felt the theory of such poetry to be “a very essential part of our life and art; and yet I also feel that it is a construction, very haphazard, uncertain, and by no means as yet to be taken as definitive.”

The earliest works in the show—prints of the concrete poems Acrobats, Star/Steer, and Sea Poppy I, all 1966—demonstrate Finlay’s efforts at the time to find a new “syntax and movement” for his language. In Sea Poppy I, for example, a red rosette made up of the serial numbers of Scottish fishing vessels is printed on a deep blue ground. Both title and image show his abiding preoccupation with the notions of difference and metaphoric equivalence—here in the relationship between sea and land, or between sea and his Lanarkshire garden, the source and site of much of Finlay’s work, and a place he never leaves. Structures of difference and equivalence can also be perceived here in terms of language and writing, the letters and numbers within the rosette functioning as visual forms and, in their identification of the ocean-going boats, as codes. The line between language and nonlanguage is both drawn and crossed. Fern and Coastal Boy, both 1977, extend this set of relationships. Here the vessels’ names are three-dimensional, made of wooden letters fixed to a plank and arranged on the gallery floor. Coastal Boy is painted sky blue and Fern is green with an earth-brown base, drawing further metaphors from Finlay’s garden and from the ocean and identifying these with the architecture of the gallery.

The most recent works in the show—Arrosoir, 1984, Wildflower Vase, 1985, and Brount (Hommage à Greuze), 1986—refer to the French Revolution. Arrosoir, as its name suggests, is a watering can, in red, white, and blue ceramic inscribed with the dates of Saint-Just’s birth and death. Wildflower Vase is a fluted classical column, its pedestal bearing the legend “Wildflower: a mean term between revolution and virtue.” Finlay uses revolution as both a cultural and a natural term. On the one hand it suggests an antagonistic change of circumstance, and on the other a planetary movement, guaranteeing the succession of climatic conditions that ensure natural renewal.

Ehrentempel (Temple of honor, 1980), is a marble work in four parts that fit together to form a model of the former Nazi monument in Nuremberg. Around its architrave is carved the text of Finlay’s “First Suprematist Standing Poem” (1968): “How Blue? How Sad? How Small? How White? How Far? Flow Blue! How Far! How Sad! How Small! How White!” Again his stance is forthright and questioning. Although, like many of his contemporaries, Finlay deals with the provisional nature of historical knowledge, his art is uncontaminated by post-Modern anomie.

Michael Archer