New York

Ian Hamilton Finlay, ROUSSEAU (Sour Vase)/A Wild Flower Is Ideological, like a Badge, 1991–93, cast bronze, ceramic vase; bust: 27 1⁄2 × 10 1⁄2 × 11“, vase: 5 1⁄2 × 3 3⁄8 × 3 3⁄8”.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, ROUSSEAU (Sour Vase)/A Wild Flower Is Ideological, like a Badge, 1991–93, cast bronze, ceramic vase; bust: 27 1⁄2 × 10 1⁄2 × 11“, vase: 5 1⁄2 × 3 3⁄8 × 3 3⁄8”.

Ian Hamilton Finlay

David Nolan Gallery

Ian Hamilton Finlay, ROUSSEAU (Sour Vase)/A Wild Flower Is Ideological, like a Badge, 1991–93, cast bronze, ceramic vase; bust: 27 1⁄2 × 10 1⁄2 × 11“, vase: 5 1⁄2 × 3 3⁄8 × 3 3⁄8”.

A certain subset of modernists was eager to demonstrate that what seems newest is old, even archaic, and that what appears most radical in contemporary culture has its source in centuries past. Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) first came to attention in the 1950s for his innovations in concrete poetry. But the Scottish poet, gardener, sculptor, and prolific collaborator was equally influenced by the poetry of Virgil and the unfolding of the French Revolution. This show, Finlay’s tenth at the gallery, attempted to give viewers a sense of Little Sparta, a garden on a farm near Edinburgh, which Finlay built with his wife, Sue Finlay. The garden, now overseen by a trust and open to the public each summer, is the summation of Finlay’s life in art. It features nearly three hundred artworks; many are sculptures featuring poetic inscriptions created in collaboration with stone carvers and other craftspeople. Such sculptures formed the bulk of this presentation, which brought together works made between 1967 and 2005.

The show’s presiding spirit was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writing inspired its title, “The garden became my study.” A bust depicting Rousseau, a copy of a 1780 work by Jean-Antoine Houdon, provided the only human face in an otherwise text-heavy display. It rested on a pedestal that also held a ceramic jar, containing purple wildflowers, inscribed A WILD FLOWER IS IDEOLOGICAL, LIKE A BADGE. Here, then, a symbol of innocence and liberty, and of the natural world so important to Rousseau, was pressed into service as a form of intellectual identification.

That work, from 1991–93, also demonstrates Finlay’s penchant for wordplay: Carved into the portrait’s base are the letters of Rousseau’s name, rearranged to spell SOUR VASE (a Roman V replaces one U). A nearby work, Urn 1794, 1993, was an empty stone vessel made with Peter Coates. The year of its title, carved into its base, marked the end of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror—and the beheading of an architect of the Terror, Maximilien Robespierre. Both sculptures offer wry acknowledgment that even—or especially—the purest thinking can lead to something rancid, even fatal. 

Other works were equally rich in reference but more pastoral or harmonious in tone. A quotation from eighteenth-century English poet William Shenstone festooned a bronze watering can. E. M. Forster’s dictum ONLY CONNECT was carved into a small stone tablet hung low on a wall. L’idylle des cerises (The Idyll of Cherries), 2005, a harvest basket filled with the titular berries and a panel, both in stone, invokes a playful anecdote in Rousseau’s Confessions (1782). Upstairs, a room featured five inscribed teak benches that refer to the Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Clare. The space was tattooed with wall paintings featuring other literary phrases; the simplest and most evocative of these paintings was EVENING, 1967, in which the titular word is rendered in a blue that thickens and darkens from the first letter to the last. 

The density of allusion and range of tone gave ample evidence of Finlay’s temperament, and of the sweep of experiences, from sheltered gardens to untamed open fields, on offer at Little Sparta. That each artwork in Finlay’s masterpiece was set into a specific landscape meant this gallery’s display was necessarily shorn of important context—despite the inclusion of a curving, light-green wall and a large black-and-white photomural of a stand of trees. Nonetheless, the show presented an opportunity that another great classically minded modernist, Guy Davenport (1927–2005), would have savored. Viewers could, in Davenport’s words taken from another context, “thrill to the depths of years in which we can stand.”