Nancy Holt (1938–2014)

Nancy Holt in Galisteo, NM, March 2008. Photo: Alena Williams.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO while making a research trip to New Mexico, I visited one of Nancy Holt’s meditation sessions in Santa Fe. Meditation for her was not merely idle contemplation, but an alertness to the smallest details in a single “granule of time.” The sound of silence was deafening to me, but she could shut it all out. I think the periods Holt spent on her own, building her work, photographing it, are what prepared her to ignore the world and burrow down into her life in the nearby village of Galisteo. She had a talent for closing things down in order to open perception. Her “Locators,” 1972–2012, series concentrated the world down to the smallest detail, and her “Buried Poems,” 1969–71, were like a perceptual vortex: Across the multiple pages in the booklets she prepared for their recipients were a series of maps—the first starting with a general view of the world, and gradually, with each turning of the page, the images would zero in on a burial site, shuttling down to an individually selected location. Perhaps in her mind she was turning over that concept—plumbed in Kees Boeke’s 1968 book Cosmic View and Charles and Ray Eames’s 1977 film Powers of Ten—of how in a single granule of matter one might see the universe.

Holt’s attention to sensory phenomena was not just about perception as such, but apperception. Turning inward. Discerning differences. Drowning out the noise, the extraneous. After a certain point, she even shut out much of the external interest in her own work. Yet the year 2010 marked a number of new exhibitions, projects, and traveling, and by then she was, in fact, eager to have a record. Looking back, there was a certain kind of urgency that kicked in long after I first contacted her in 2004, enabling us to push through the “Sightlines,” 2010–13, exhibition tour I curated and its accompanying publication. Then, three years after the opening of the first venue in New York—and the same year that the final presentation closed in Utah—came the bewildering leukemia diagnosis. Imperceptible small bits of matter were proliferating within her, and very little could be done to intervene. It was a disruption of the body on such an infinitesimal scale, but when I first visited her in the hospital, she was ebullient, truly captivated by the altered perspective her diagnosis tendered (a couple of her works—Revolve, 1977, and Ransacked, 1980—had explored death in an intensive way). We all wanted to know how much time was left, but there she was prospecting time, drawing out forty-eight hours into four deeply meaningful months of intense work and preparation.

Throughout those weeks Holt spent in New York, she spoke a lot about the novel she was reading, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013), which I just completed reading before sitting down to write these lines. For all the obvious reasons this book might have interested her—its vivid depiction of the American West, Utah’s expansive salt flats, a woman’s engagement with speed on the open road—she was drawn most to the language, a kind of eroticism overlain onto that place “out there,” and the recognition of that very desert landscape that wraps up around her past and the future of so many others. “Out there” is not simply a physical space, but a mental state that harmonized one’s urban existence, its discursive networks, and the slower moments one takes out on one’s own. Famously, Holt camped out in Utah’s Great Basin Desert in her VW van for days when making, and later photographing, her iconic Sun Tunnels, 1973–76. In 1978, she made a solo cross-country trip on Interstate 80 while returning to New York City from Salt Lake City; solitary, traveling through time—she recorded an audiotape, called U.S. 80 SOLO, 1979, pointing out sites of interest along the way.

In reading the novel, which was gifted to me by a friend shortly after Holt’s passing on February 8, I was searching for her. One early sequence coincided with my understanding of how she chose to move in the world: “The salt did not feel like road. . . . I felt alert to every granule of time. Each granule was time, the single pertinent image, the other movement-images, before and after, lost unconsidered.” This was the kind of alertness her works instill. Her practice of Buddhist meditation began later in life, but when she discovered it, it addressed many themes she had already been probing in her life and work. Intrinsic to the exhilaration one feels at the salt flats is the way its dazzling, white surface clears perception of clutter and interruptive details. Holt herself was very strong and resilient, and indeed, calm persistence up to this point had been the key to understanding, even accessing, her work. She had a deeply analytical mind, which probed into complex systems with an incisive sensitivity. Part of her resolve was knowing that life will persist and that life was complex—it needed to be partaken of and drawn out over time.

Nancy Holt, July 1967. Photo: Barbara Schwartz.

Holt’s voice still remains one of the most enduring aspects about her. Endless conversation with friends were her greatest education and was how she found her own artistic voice—that steady, tempered timbre so often captured in voiceover in her early films and videotapes. She was interested in how words might be put to use to introduce things in the world. One sees this in her concrete poems, and her audio tours of landscapes, galleries, and interiors, and her love of T. S. Eliot’s and Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Her own assembly of words aurally and visually transformed the viewer’s engagement with the environment from accidental encounter to consummate awareness. Though Holt was never one for expounding on philosophical texts, there were people whose work she read—French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa, and environmental activist Edward Abbey—who informed her own thinking and moving in the world; as well as those she admired—artists Eva Hesse and Ian Wilson, among others; and those with whom she collaborated, including scores of artists, filmmakers, astrophysicists, stonemasons, engineers, architects, urban planners, public-art administrators, contractors, and laborers.

A visit to the New Jersey Pine Barrens in early October of last year, the weekend after her keynote lecture at Princeton, was our last trip together. Back in 1974, Holt went out into this landscape to shoot sequences for her 16-mm film Pine Barrens (1975). In a structuralist manner, she would shoot entire hundred-foot rolls of film of that vast space without interruption, and then head back to New York to get them developed. Even today, the landscape itself is remarkably varied and full of unexpected plants and creeping, growing things, roads that become trails and then dead-end into brush after fifteen minutes of rambling. This is why reproducible media are so central to understanding her practice—it’s about the way time inscribes its path into and outwards from the body, thought patterns, and physiological rhythms. Our small group only spent a single—amazingly efficient—afternoon in and among the pines, but we could have stayed for days. Our peregrinations included a slight detour, stopping off at Batsto Village along Route 542 near the Green Bank Inn, the local watering hole where Holt recorded music for the film. Known since the late-eighteenth century for its ironworks until demand petered out in the mid-nineteenth century, the old town of Batsto is a relic of clustered, wooden architecture—the Piggery, Woodhouse, Carriage House, Horse Stable, Threshing Barn, Gristmill, the Sawmill. Wandering though the mills, she wanted us to get a picture of the big stone wheel still in good shape, which no doubt had been used for grinding grain.

I wrote her once last year, after visiting the prime meridian and the museums at the old Royal Observatory in Greenwich for some private research. I was there because I loved the old timekeepers, the English clockmaker John Harrison’s inventions for navigation. Holt’s work, too, was like a clockwork. A timekeeper out of minimalist forms. Amid the myriad science displays was a meteorite nearly 4,500,000,000 years old. She once embedded such an object in her own sculpture, but her interest in stones was an enthrallment with astronomical time—the endurance of places like Stonehenge, ancient burial sites, extraterrestrial objects—all the universe’s detritus that finds its way to the earth’s surface and becomes shaped by it. On a biological level, so many things determine our daily rhythms, but the sun is one of the most elemental characteristics of planetary existence—and was one of the structural elements of Holt’s practice. Made of heavy, solid industrial materials, her sculptures were meant not only to mark cyclical time, but also to withstand it. Her love of things that persist through time could also be traced in her collection of postcards—lighthouses, graveyards, standing stones, roadways, and aqueducts, the sun framed in famous arches—alongside her stereoscopic images of the Niagara Falls, the great cataract she began filming in 1975 (a project she never completed). In her response to my note, she wanted to know about my life, what was going on, what progress had been made; this curiosity, much like her work, will endure.

Alena J. Williams is an art historian and curator based in Berlin.

More reflections on Nancy Holt from Virginia Dwan and Lucy R. Lippard can be found in the May print issue of Artforum.