PRINT May 2014


Nancy Holt

Nancy Holt shooting the film Sun Tunnels, 1978, Lucin, UT. Photo: Lee Deffebach.

NANCY HOLT completed her earth time on February 8. She remains an enduring influence for those of us who knew her and for those of us who continue to experience her work.

I first met Nancy in 1966 with her husband, the artist Robert Smithson. Bob was one of the early proponents of Minimal art and Land art, two movements that prevailed among the artists I showed at Dwan Gallery in New York and Los Angeles. At that time, Nancy was reticent about her work, while Smithson’s art moved to the forefront. It is only in retrospect that I realized Nancy actually spearheaded those movements—and that in fact, she was actively writing poetry, filming, and photographing all along.

In 1967, the three of us traveled together on a number of excursions through the mid-Atlantic region from New Jersey to Virginia, in search of available land for potential Earthworks. Nancy was the intrepid driver and researcher as we made our way to cranberry bogs and the little airfield deep within the New Jersey Pine Barrens (the outcome of which was Bob’s first non-site). In 1969, we traveled to the Yucatán Peninsula. Nancy arranged all the necessities, and we visited the archaeological sites at Palenque, Uxmal, Bonampak, and Yaxchilan. There, Bob saw us as three Mayan gods, each with a defining perspective. In 1970, after he completed Spiral Jetty in Utah, I visited there twice with him and Nancy.

Bob died in 1973 in a plane crash while reconnoitering for Amarillo Ramp. In his absence, Nancy pushed forward, bringing together Richard Serra, Tony Shafrazi, and others to finish the piece following Bob’s specifications. It was completed that same year. I noticed shortly before his death that Bob was producing less work. I asked him why he was not creating as much as he had in the past, and he answered, “It’s Nancy’s turn now.”

After Bob’s death, Nancy went on to create a number of important works, including Sun Tunnels, 1973–76; Dark Star Park,1979–84; Missoula Ranch Locators: Vision Encompassed,1972; Hydra’s Head, 1974; and Up and Under, 1998. Sun Tunnels, her best-known work, invokes the circle as a viewing device, through four cylinders placed in the Great Basin Desert, Utah, in alignment with the path of the sun during solstices, and therefore acting as a kind of compass. Round holes drilled through the surfaces of the large concrete tubes mirror the configurations of the constellations of Capricorn, Columba, Draco, and Perseus, bringing forth an awareness of the earth and the sky.

Nancy had a brilliant, active mind. Her thoughts and points of view were abundant and creative, yet she was always meticulous and exacting in her realization of them. Right up until the last possible moment, she worked tirelessly from the hospital to complete her film The Making of Amarillo Ramp (2013).

I had the opportunity to visit Nancy toward the end of her life. She was battling an acute and rapidly growing leukemia. Her equanimity and caring were powerful examples of her many years as a Buddhist follower and teacher. She maintained a thoughtful, kind spirit throughout the four short months that ensued. At the end, she requested that people not try to phone or visit her. She chose instead to turn within.

I, among many others, will regret no longer experiencing Nancy’s earthly presence. But her life proved to be a very complete one. Her art provides us with an experience of interactivity between the cosmos and the earth. I believe that her inner journey also brought her life full circle.

Virginia Dwan is the former owner and executive director of the Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, and the Dwan Gallery, New York. She currently lives in New York and Santa Fe, NM.