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A series of Ian Hamilton Finlay exhibitions
July 2012–January 2014
“What are exhibitions for?” It’s a very childlike question, isn’t it. What are animals for? What is the potato for? We’re all card-carrying functionalists. Nevertheless, the question has battery life, if not for obtaining its answer, then for segregating our expectations about the form. On November 10, 2013 with the opening of
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the sixth in a series of Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) exhibitions, we expect the form to hold our necks back against the blade of resolution.
Over the past few years, a number of scholars, curators, and long term appreciators* each went into Reed College’s Ian Hamilton Finlay collection and came out with a different account. Different minds, different experiences, and all we asked of any was their own validity. As for specifics, we happily yielded to the impartial: the hagiographic, the gushy, the academic, the minor, the un-edified, etc.
Why the elliptical? Finlay is a great artist. But many artists are called “great.” The word is industrially farmed. In his case it meant greatly prolific, greatly contested, greatly provoked and greatly provoking. Finlay depends on who weighs the scales and how those scales are weighted. Something like that, sure. He was a stamina merchant. He was a concrete poet, and then he wasn’t. He was a printmaker, a sculptor, a gardener, and above all, he was a publisher, founding The Wild Hawthorn Press in 1961. “Difficult” is the word that people usually stick to him. Maybe the incline comes from the work’s quiet amplitude, or the way it says both less than you think it ought to and then suddenly more than you think you could ever be responsible for. No doubt, the work can impose linguistic and aesthetic distance, but if it does, it never seeks to do less than bring a particular person as close as possible. Over the course of the Press’s run, Finlay produced epic volubility in intimate ways; and handing it all over in one big go, just cold, feels clumsy. There are some artist’s whose work can be displayed in a smooth fashion, and then there are artists who bay in the box. Quantity limps his work, but if you get it gradually, well spaced, larded with silence, then the work is overpowering. You gotta wait, you know, and wait, and wait, and wait, and we just don’t do that sort of thing much—the world turns—who has time to wait between two exhibitions for just a little shade of aesthetic revelation?
We’re lucky. With some six hundred printed works and artist books, Reed College’s Ian Hamilton Finlay collection begins with the first Wild Hawthorn Press edition, Canal Series 3 (1964), and ends with work from the tail of his life. The collection was acquired in 2006 through the efforts of Gerri Ondrizek and Gay Walker, without whose appreciation* this work would be out of reach.
Marjorie Perloff teaches and writes on twentieth and now twenty-first century poetry, poetics, and the visual arts. She is Professor Emerita of English at Stanford University and a scholar in residence at the University of Southern California. She is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Her most recent book, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, was published by University of Chicago Press in 2010.
*As much as the word appreciate is typically taken to mean to esteem, to find worth or excellence in, its foremost meaning, says the O.E.D., is to form an estimate of worth or quality, and, in so doing, to feel the full force of the thing before us. Such appreciation then demands scrutiny, compassion, and sometimes unflinching ruthlessness.