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Artists Nancy Holt
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Nancy Holt

American Sculptor, Conceptual Artist, Photographer, and Filmmaker

Movements and Styles: Land Art, Conceptual Art, Installation Art, Public Sculpture

Born: April 5, 1938 - Worcester, Massachusetts

Died: February 8, 2014 - New York, New York

Nancy Holt Timeline

Quotes

"I feel that the need to look at the sky - at the moon and stars - is very basic, and it is inside all of us."
Nancy Holt
"In one way you can see the Locators, and many of my other works; as an extension of sight, of the form of the eye."
Nancy Holt
"My work involves me in the vast world that exists outside of the art world"
Nancy Holt
"In my Land art dealing with astronomical phenomena, I am putting "centers of the universe" wherever I go, making my work uniquely site-specific"
Nancy Holt
"I have a strong desire to make people conscious of the cyclical time of the universe"
Nancy Holt
"What I was doing over and over again was manifesting outwardly in physical form the universe as it is within. They interrelate - the outside world is a reflection of the inside world and vice versa"
Nancy Holt
"Words and photographs of the work are memory traces, not art. At best, they are inducements for people to go and see the actual work."
Nancy Holt
"Since each work sets up a perceptual structure, you're always perceiving your own sight and your own perception relative to the structure, so there is a perceptual relativity which is also very physical and related to the level of the eye."
Nancy Holt

"My art seemed to have a life of its own, which kept me transfixed"

Synopsis

Nancy Holt fell in love with the American West, and embraced its vast, wide-open spaces as a kind of museum without walls. Her concrete and steel constructions helped free sculpture from the gallery context. These contemplative, often elegiac monuments to time and to the land, emphasize close observation. Free thinkers and art enthusiasts still travel for miles to observe the summer and winter solstice from inside her Sun Tunnels (1979), four colossal tubes that frame the rising and setting sun. While overshadowed by her celebrated husband, Robert Smithson, Holt produced a body of work distinct from his, and more forward-looking in its implications. In a leave-no-trace approach, some of Holt's best work is barely there. Earlier and more immediately than the other Land Artists, Holt saw the connection between art and eco-activism. Like light from a faraway star, some of Holt's ideas were so far ahead of their time that the art world has yet to fully acknowledge them.

Key Ideas

Initially there was no alignment between Land art and environmentalism. Many early Land artworks actively damaged the land. Holt was one of the first artists to use outdoor art as a platform for environmental activism. She introduced ideas central to environmental protection, conservation, and stewardship that were not initially central to the art movement.
"I have a strong desire to make people conscious of the cyclical time of the universe," the artist once said. Time-based elements (human, geographic, or celestial) in her sculptures place us at the center of a participatory experience. The theme of recording time gives her work an effect that is immediate, and at the same time, eternal.
Her sculptural installations feature enclosures that frame our experience of nature. The act of framing, a recurring theme in Holt's work, functions as a metaphor for visual observation and is the genesis of many of her projects.
Holt's site-specific installations never seek to rival nature, but challenge us to look more closely at our environment. Hydra's Head, a configuration of small cylinders that might be mistaken for a drainage system, or Missoula Ranch Locators: Vision Encompassed, steel viewfinders distributed across an open field, are examples of her minimalist strategy that reinforces our connection with nature, attuning our senses to what is present around us.
While Smithson, Heizer, de Maria and others engaged in a contest to see who could make the largest mark on earth (almost as if it were a big canvas), Holt grasped the most radical implications of the Land Art movement. Integration - as opposed to competition - with the elements was her goal. While fully aware that this more subtle approach would not win her the immediate admiration of the art world, she explained, "I was emphasizing being over becoming. And in the art world it's a hard stance." In emphasizing Land over Art, Holt's remarkably visionary aim anticipated the future of the movement.
Although widely represented through photographs, which Holt described as "memory traces," the work was only complete, Holt insisted, through direct experience. This is especially evident in Sun Tunnels, her most famous work, where the changing conditions of weather and light transform the work from one moment to the next.

Most Important Art

Nancy Holt Famous Art

Sun Tunnels (1976)

Holt collaborated with engineers, astronomers, pipe manufacturers, and many other professionals to complete her most ambitious and famous work, Sun Tunnels. Sometimes called the "American Stonehenge," this Minimalist-inspired suite of four concrete pipes forms a cross with an open center. Each pipe points in one of the four cardinal directions. Measuring 9 feet high by 18 feet long, each axis aligns perfectly with the sunrise and sunset of the winter and summer solstices, when the sun appears centered within the tunnels.

In addition, each tube is perforated with holes in the shape of a specific constellation: Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn. During the day, sunlight streams through the holes and projects the constellations inside the tunnels, connecting earth and sky.

Holt purchased the land in 1973 in a remote valley in the Great Basin Desert in northwest Utah: "I had the sense that I was perhaps walking on a piece of land that nobody had ever walked on before - the natives who lived there hundreds of years ago, I'm sure they didn't step on every piece of my 40 acres - and that was thrilling to me" she later remembered.

With nothing around for miles (not even service facilities), one approaches the work by car, and then on foot. The awe-inspiring pilgrimage is part of the work itself. Holt's aim for the work, as she put it, was to "bring the vast space of the desert back down to human scale," and indicate the "cyclical time" of the solar year. Although there is no substitute for the direct experience, visitors' descriptions convey a feeling of being at the center of the universe. The tunnels "emanate brute power" said one recent guest. "There, in the middle of nowhere, a person suddenly is placed in the middle of everywhere," said another.

Sun Tunnels made Holt one of few women artists to gain recognition amid the male-dominated Land Art scene of the 1970s.
Read More ...

Nancy Holt Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Holt was born on April 5, 1938 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father was a chemical engineer and her mother a homemaker, both New Englanders. When Holt turned three the family relocated to New Jersey in what was supposed to be a temporary move. Her father believed he would be transferred back to Massachusetts, which never happened. Holt's early life was shaped by a series of moves that made her feel "oddly displaced" and alone. As an only child, Holt observed "many overlooked or unacknowledged things" that later give rise to artworks. Her family moved first to Bloomfield and then again to Clifton, New Jersey, where Holt attended high school. One of Holt's high school classmates was Robert Smithson, Holt's future husband and the leader of the Land Art movement. It wasn't until later that the two became friends.

Early Training and work

Nancy Holt Biography

As an undergraduate at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, Holt was interested in both science and art. Her passion for "unusual plants and animals and the systems that kept them alive" led her to choose biology as a major. She attended lectures at MIT that bridged the gap between art and science. During her third year in college, Holt began traveling to New York to see art and meet artists. During one of these visits, a friend reintroduced her to her former high school classmate Smithson. The two of them connected and began what would be a decade-long exchange of ideas on art and science.

Holt with Robert Smithson

Holt graduated in 1960 and traveled around Europe with friends. She then moved to Manhattan and commuted daily to work as a researcher at the Lederle Labs in Pearl River. In 1962 her mother died of cancer. A few months later her father died from a heart attack. Holt quit her job, moved with Smithson to a loft in the West Village, and married him in June of 1963.

During this transformative period, Holt remembered feeling a mixture of grief and liberation. To support herself, she served as assistant literary editor at Harper's Bazaar and taught at the Downtown Community School. In addition, she began an "interior investigation", relying extensively on literature, and "digging into metaphysics, poetry, and Jungian psychology" in order to understand her own psychology.

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Nancy Holt Biography Continues

Mature Period

Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, and Carl Andre in New Jersey (1967). Photo by Virginia Dwan

By the mid-1960s, Holt was well acquainted with Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, Eva Hesse, Joan Jonas, Michael Heizer, and Robert Morris, and was immersed in the culture of two radical movements, Conceptual art and Minimalism. Her concrete poems and photographs of New Jersey sites during trips with Smithson and friends are vital additions to these movements.

In 1968, in the company of Smithson and Heizer, Holt visited the American West for the first time. She later recalled experiencing the desert and mountains, and on a vast scale unlike anything she had previously experienced, as a major turning point in her life and career. The next year, Holt and Smithson traveled to Europe to visit ancient archeological sites in England, including Stonehenge and Dartmoor. These too influenced her perception of landscape.

Nancy Holt in Dartmoor, England (1969). Photo by Robert Smithson

By the early 1970s Holt had begun to photograph and video Smithson's work, making a film of his now celebrated Spiral Jetty in Utah and photographing sites in California, Nevada, New Jersey, and beyond. Holt's first solo exhibitions featuring these photographs took place in 1972 at the University of Montana, Rhode Island University, and at the Institute for Art and Urban Resources in New York City.

Smithson died tragically in a plane crash on July 20, 1973. He had been headed to Texas to work on Amarillo Ramp, his latest project. Holt, who often accompanied him, had decided to remain at home to focus on Sun Tunnels, her own work in progress. After Smithson's death, Holt completed Amarillo Ramp with sculptor Richard Serra and art dealer Tony Shafrazi, and turned her attention to editing The Writings of Robert Smithson (1979), a seminal work that would help define the emerging field of Land Art.

After 1973, Holt dedicated a significant portion of energy in the coming years to the management of her late husband's legacy, while continuing to pursue her own work. In 1975 Holt moved to Utah for a year to complete Sun Tunnels, a project she had placed on hold after her husband's death. She then slept on top of a van for several nights, photographing and filming the work at different times during the day. Also during the mid-seventies and eighties, Holt contributed to the development of the emerging field of public art, completing several commissions.

In the 1980s she began to create "functional" works that reflected growing environmental consciousness. Holt's explorations of water, electrical, and ventilation systems from these years focus on the limitations of the earth's natural resources.

Late Period

Nancy Holt Portrait

In 1995 Holt left New York and settled in Galisteo, New Mexico, where she began exploring the high desert in Northern New Mexico. In 1999 Holt entered a period of introspection, meditation, and reading that removed her from the sphere of the art world, traveling to India and Nepal and returning to teach meditation in 2001.

While retreating from the public eye, Holt remained a writer and artist until the end of her life, creating public art works, installations, photographs, and films in the United States and abroad. She completed ambitious, multi-year projects, both her own and Smithson's, and in her late career she oversaw the restoration of a few of her earlier works - including Dark Star Park in Virginia.

In 2007 Holt reentered the public arena as an environmental activist, protesting against the auction oil and gas rights on land adjacent to Sun Tunnels. The next year she protested against drilling oil in the north arm of the Great Salt Lake, which would impact Smithson's Spiral Jetty only a few miles away.

Nancy Holt: Sightlines, Holt's first retrospective, opened at Columbia University and traveled to other cities in the U.S. and Europe from 2010-2012. The artist was in her early 70s. She died at age 75 in 2014 from Leukemia.


Legacy

Holt's contribution to late twentieth-century art remains underemphasized, but what Holt achieved is all the more remarkable given the barriers she faced. Land Art was one of the most male-dominated movements of the late twentieth century. Women, it was assumed, were less capable of conceiving of large-scale projects. They also were presumed to lack the physical stamina to operate forklifts, cranes, and industrial equipment necessary to complete the work. Both assumptions were ridiculous, especially the second, since virtually all Land Artists worked with teams of skilled laborers who operated the heavy machinery and completed the grunt work. These assumptions had real consequences, however. Six and seven-figure grants from foundations, galleries and private donors went to men. Before Holt's Sun Tunnels, all major Land Art projects (Spiral Jetty (1969), Double Negative (1969), Lightning Field (1977)) had been completed by male artists.

Like Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, and Gabriel Munter, Holt devoted much of her career to preserving her husband's legacy, putting many of her own projects on hold. While never receiving the level of support or encouragement to complete a body of work that rivaled his, Holt broke the glass ceiling, paving the way for the ascension of one the most brilliant Land Artists, Maya Lin, whose work is visibly indebted to Holt's in its focus on ecology, history, and complex systems in nature. Holt's interest in astronomy set an important precedent for her slightly younger, but much more famous, contemporary James Turrell, who is still boring holes into the Roden Crater, an underground astrological observatory he began building, perhaps not coincidentally, the year after Holt completed Sun Tunnels. Carol Bove's unobtrusive installation entitled Caterpillar (2013) along the stretch of New York City's High Line Park is visibly indebted to Holt's subtle modifications, blending in with surroundings.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Nancy Holt
Interactive chart with Nancy Holt's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

David SmithDavid Smith
Emily DickinsonEmily Dickinson
T.S. EliotT.S. Eliot
Joan JonasJoan Jonas

Friends

Robert SmithsonRobert Smithson
Michael HeizerMichael Heizer
Eva HesseEva Hesse
Carl AndreCarl Andre
Sol LeWittSol LeWitt

Movements

MinimalismMinimalism
Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
Nancy Holt
Nancy Holt
Years Worked: 1967 - 2014

Artists

Robert MorrisRobert Morris
Virginia DwanVirginia Dwan

Friends

Robert SmithsonRobert Smithson
Carl AndreCarl Andre
Richard SerraRichard Serra
Michael HeizerMichael Heizer

Movements

Land ArtLand Art
Video ArtVideo Art
Public SculpturePublic Sculpture
Environmental ArtEnvironmental Art

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Catarina Flaksman

Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Catarina Flaksman
Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein
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Useful Resources on Nancy Holt

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Nancy Holt Sightlines Recomended resource

By Alena J. Williams

artworks

Nancy Holt: Photoworks

By Ben Tufnell

Visionary Land Recomended resource

By Gail Bambrick
Tufts Now
January 19, 2012

Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson in England, 1969

By Simon Grant and Nancy Holt
Tate
May 3, 2012

Nancy Holt, Outdoor Artist, dies at 75

By Randy Kennedy
The New York Times
February 12, 2014

Nancy Holt: 1955-2014

Phaidon
February 11, 2014

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