So much recent U.S. art is speedy and aggressive that the thoughtfulness and patience of "A Quiet Revolution: British Sculpture Since 1965," which goes on view today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, come as a relief. It's a gentle exhibition. Its lack of bombast pleases. Wandering through its galleries, I kept thinking of an old, time-honored British pastime: going for a walk.
Samuel Johnson was a walker. He walked through London and through Scotland (and "prided himself," writes Graham Beal in the exhibition catalogue, "in having walked through five counties in one day"). Wordsworth was a walker, as was Coleridge. It sometimes seems that all of England is spider-webbed by footpaths. A sense of wandering and pausing, of musing and remembering -- and of gathering the objects found along the path, the slates and logs and bits of trash -- runs throughout this show.
Except for that word "quiet," its title seems excessive. No six-artist survey can adequately survey 20 years of British sculpture. But despite its arguable exclusions, this show is well worth seeing. It is enriched by its coherence.
It begins with Richard Long, who prefers to walk alone, in rural England and in Scotland and the highlands of Nepal. His oldest piece on view (it's represented by a photograph) is "A Line Made by Walking, England, 1967"; it is a straight path in a meadow worn by walking back and forth. Long has often shown in Washington. His incantatory works of art make one think of pilgrimages, mantras, meditations. His floor pieces, red slates within a circle, gray slates in a line, are far less minimal and formal than their shapes suggest. They carry the mind back to the Stonehenge-ancient meeting of the heavens and the hills, the circle and the square.
The exhibition ends with Tony Cragg. Cragg also wanders here and there, but he does so in the city. He also gathers what he finds, but he doesn't pick up stones. He collects discarded tires, saw blades or round and rusting gears -- and stacks them into monuments. Or he gathers bits of colored plastic -- bottle caps, Bic lighters, broken toys or toothbrushes -- and then glues them to the wall, arranging them to form, say, a figure that's half snake and half man, or a Union Jack.
The move from nature's works to those of man, from the pious and the somber to the playful and the goofy -- from Richard Long to Tony Cragg -- is one of the chief pathways that unifies the show.
All six sculptors gather what they find about them, slates or logs or seaside stones, junked washing machines or maps or lengths of corrugated roofing tin. None of them attempts to disguise his materials. In almost every sculpture here, what was can still be seen in what has become.
David Nash, like Long, pays homage to the natural. But his thinking is less linear, and his preference is for living things, rather than for stone. He once planted a 100-foot circle of bluebells (he says "each year you can see them for about a week"). In Wales he is growing a ring of tangled brambles, and a dome of living ash trees. (The ash trees were planted in 1977; he's notched them and he's bent them, he's fletched them and he's pruned them. The dome will be complete in another 30 years.)
Though Nash builds stoves of ice and slate and sea stones, he mostly uses wood, welcoming its changes, its warpings and its cracks. He sometimes shapes his logs by charring them in fires. At other times he lets the seasons do the work. One of his pieces, "Wooden Boulder," has been bleached and smoothed by sunlight and by melting snow, and is now being polished by the rushing waters of a swift Welsh stream.
Bill Woodrow starts with metal things -- vacuum cleaners, tumble dryers, the steel hoods of cars -- and then transforms these objects into oddly literary dreams. He has, for instance, dismantled a vacuum cleaner, strewn its pieces on the floor and then placed them at the mercy of another Hoover, this one made of painted wire and wood. It seems a sort of corpse about to be devoured by its ghost.
No work of Woodrow's is more English than his "Ship of Fools, Captain's Table" (1985). He began with a 19th-century table, a 19th-century chair and a 20th-century car hood of sheet steel. The sheet metal, cut in swaths and strips, has become a compass, a navigator's divider and a bold three-masted frigate that sails through the chair.
The recent works of Barry Flanagan are even more inventive. And funnier. Once he gathered bits of cloth and stones and seaside sand, but now, unlike his colleagues here, he works with carved stone and with bronze. His latest pieces call to mind the earnest statues of the statesmen, and the fallen heroes that stand so proudly on their pedestals in every English town. But Flanagan's hero is no warrior. It is instead a gamboling hare: Long-eared and long-legged, it dances and it leaps. What does it symbolize? Many things, lust and March hare madness, abandon and subversion. One cannot help suspecting that it's a sort of a self-portrait of the artist's soul.
Of the sculptures on display, those of Richard Deacon are most difficult to figure out, and the most impressive. They are abstract, but not wholly so. They are dense with hints and metaphors and juxtaposed allusions. Deacon, like his colleagues, works with coarse materials -- corrugated steel, sharply pointed screws, linoleum, laminated wood. His objects issue thoughts. The steel piece he calls "If the Shoe Fits" (1981) is part shoe and part hat, part saddle and part plunging hoof, part charming and part scary. It also calls to mind the ruffs and rich lace cuffs worn by 18th-century gentlemen, but gentle it is not. Stroke it and its sharpened screws will certainly draw blood.
The exhibition, organized by Mary Jane Jacob and Graham Beal for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has been touring since January. Slotted, at the Hirshhorn, between the august Lucian Freud show that is now on view, and a Francis Bacon retrospective that is still to come, it adds important information to that museum's explorations of recent British art.
All six of these sculptors (all of whom were born in the 1940s) attended St. Martin's, the Royal College or the Chelsea School of Art. All of them have prospered in a land that pays but slight attention, and generally opposes, contemporary art. All are hostile to their nation's old pomposities, and to rank displays of wealth, and all are somehow generous to their viewers. They invite you to participate in their scavenging, their thought paths and the making of their art. Their show will travel to the Albright-Knox in Buffalo after closing here Jan. 10.