"Directions 1981," which goes on view today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, is an oddly musty show. The direction that it points most frequently is backwards.

The "Directions" exhibition, second in a series, is inteded as a showcase for new talent. Not so many years ago, younger artists chosen for group shows of this sort reached out for the future. These no longer bother. Their mission seems retrieval. They fulfil it sometimes grandly, but far more often blandly. Throughout their exhibition we feel them ransacking the past.

Hirshhorn curator Miranda McClintic considered, and rejected, perhaps 10,000 artists before picking the 16 included in her 50-object show. The not-at-all-traditional materials that many of them use -- Cibachrome transparencies, plastic bags and telephones, TV sets and plywood -- suggest fututismo. But when writing of their motives, almost every one of them, and particularly the lesser, cite artists long since dead.

"I believe in the masterpiece, the possibility that one work can contain all that came before it," writes field painter Jerry Zeniuk. No tradition-smasher he. His dappled oils do contain late Reinhardt and late Rothko; their ancestry appears to be by-Mehring-out-of-Marden.But they still look like brown squares.

"Constable and the Dutch 17th-century painters have been my art historical sources," writes Minnesota's William Beckman, whose biteless pastel landscapes, except for their power lines, might well have been made a century ago.

"The closet, or unidentified storage place," writes painter Thomas Rose, "is a strong metaphor in [my] work." Rose attaches objects to his dark canvases. What clutters Rose's closet is all that he has borrowed from Jim Dine, Jasper Johns and many other artists more interesting than he. Jeff Wall, who studied for a doctorate in art history, is represented here by two huge color transparencies, one of which, "Picture for Women," is a didactic comment on an 1883 painting by Manet. Wall through of his picture "as a kind of classroom lesson."

Remember the kaleidoscopes of childhood? The one that James Byrne exhibits here, instead of using chips of colored glass, employs four TV monitors. Remember minimalism? Germany's Ulrich Ruckheim here has done nothing to his heavy slab of quarried bluestone but cut it with a saw. Remember wiretapping? Grover Mouton has connected the Hirshhorn, by telephone, to the U.S. Capitol so that the footsteps and the mumblings of constituents and lobbyists, in town to see their congressmen, are heard in his display Remember the left? England's Conrad Atkinson here uses documents, photographs and many, many words to denounce what he believes to be the "piggery of the Brits" in Northern Ireland and what he sees as the "breathtaking mendacity" of the asbestos industry's ads.

Though McClintic's exhibition is stalked by deja vus, it is well worth seeing. A number of the artists -- Judy Pfaff, Vernon Fisher, and Lita Albuquerque among them -- are very good indeed.

Pfaff's piece is a room-sized environment, a marine extravaganza of coral trees and nettings, glistenings and gleamings and wild, jumping colors. How nice it is in this show to see color swimming free. Her references are many -- to Jules Verne and Frank Stella, to Cousteau and Matisse -- but they never drag her down. Her work is a delight.

Lita Albuquerque's is a kind of revelation. Her photographs record the sculptures she has made with standing stones and deserts, with mountains and with time. "The Horizon Line is the Place which Maintains the Memory" is the title of her largest piece, an environment employing colored powder, stone and a vast copper ring. The memory within it is the memory of eons. Its standing stone recalls the Wiltshire downs; that copper ring suggests not just the sun disk, but the golden torques that the ancient Irish wore 5,000 years ago; and that handstrewn crimson powder suggests sources even older: the pigments Lascaux's painters blew against cave walls, the fresh blood of the sacrifice, and the the redness of the ocher that Neanderthals so long ago sprinkled on their graves. Albuquerque's art does not merely borrow from, it somehow conquers time.

To see, to read, to understand Vernon Fisher's work is to take unto oneself his childhood, his fears and the drifting musings of his very special brain. He uses words and photographs, comic strips and memories. The killing of the yellow wasps that once whined through his studio is the subject of one work. The blood that once dripped from his arm, and settled drop by drop, like a flock of birds, on the white sand of the desert is the subject of another. The birds, cut out of canvas, have been stapled to the wall. The Fisher that we meet here is a traveler, a warrior, a bard, an art historian. He speaks to us of Tarzan and Malevich, of Marcel Duchamp and of the Nancy of the comics. He makes memorable art.

Other artists here, with various degrees of success, also mine the distant and the not-so-distant past. Michelle Stuart, for example, does not paint with paint; she grinds rocks and stone and ancient earth into the mute, mysterious surfaces of her paintings. Alain Kirili, who has learned a lot from the art of Barnett Newman and David Smith, forges totems out of steel. fEarl Staley, who's from Texas and unafraid of ugliness, has made the freest paintings here. They look half-antique, half-new, half-funny and half-earnest. He seems a Texas good ol' boy, but the stories that he tells -- the rushing of the night mare, the judgment of Paris -- are the standard stuff of old European art.

This show, like all others similiarly designed, calls to mind a bell-curve, meaty at the middle, senseless, even trivial, at the thinning edge. Debora Hunter, a photojournalist who has learned much from Diane Arbus and more from Eugene Smith, is represented by a series of "Hospice" photographs of sick people dying.They're the sort of thing we used to see in the pages of Life magazine. What they're doing in "Directions 1981" is anybody's guess.

This "Directions" show is by no means an improvement on the one that preceded it. McClintic's catagories -- "Artistry," "Myth and Metaphor" and "Social Observation" -- frequently overlap. Her choices are too often quirky, inexplicable. But exhibits of this sort, even when they're flawed, are well worth the risk. The show will go to Houston after closing here May 3.