PRINT May 2014


Nancy Holt

Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson during construction of Holt’s Missoula Ranch Locators: Vision Encompassed, 1972, north of Missoula, MT. Photo: Michael Wheatley.

NANCY HOLT died on February 8 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, after she was suddenly diagnosed with leukemia in late October. She was seventy-five and had just returned from receiving an award from the International Sculpture Center in New Jersey. From her hospital bed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, having been given a possible forty-eight hours to live, she warned me, “Don’t ever accept a lifetime-achievement award!” She survived for some three months longer, opting for experimental treatment in New York that ultimately failed. Her time was spent seeing old friends and completing a video from film shot in 1973 on the making of Robert Smithson’s Amarillo Ramp. The artists had been married for a decade when his small plane crashed that year during a routine flight to oversee the ramp’s construction. I have always found it ironic that she stayed behind that day to “concentrate on [her] own work.”

Although she was never a “Conceptual artist” per se, in the mid-1960s, when we met, Holt had produced a few notable text works (concrete poetry buried in landscapes; a crossword puzzle based on my 1966 exhibition “Eccentric Abstraction”). By the late ’60s, she was already exhibiting. Her first group show was “Language III” at the Dwan Gallery, New York, in 1968. She also took photographs and made artist’s books and several well-known films and videos. Despite a large bibliography and exhibition record, there wasn’t even a catalogue on Holt’s work until art historian Alena J. Williams finally persuaded her to collaborate on an exhibition and book, both titled Sightlines, which appeared not a moment too soon, in 2011.

After Smithson’s death, Holt entered the large-scale Earthworks/public-art field in which he had left a big hole (so to speak). Their home state of New Jersey held a special place in her heart (see her 1975 film Pine Barrens), but on her first trip west in 1968, she immediately felt “at home.” From 1973 to 1976, having bought hundreds of acres and a gravel pit near the quasi ghost town of Lucin, Utah, Holt poured her perfectionist’s energies into the creation of her best-known work. Sun Tunnels (on the cover of my 1983 book Overlay) is four huge concrete pipes arranged in a cross, aligned with solstice sunrises and sunsets. Holes form the constellations of Capricorn, Columba, Draco, and Perseus, and their sizes reflect the stars’ magnitudes, reappearing in the daylit tunnels as sparks of night light. Sun Tunnels is monumental—rare at the time for a female artist. Like her 1974 Hydra’s Head, the work epitomizes Holt’s preoccupation with connecting earth and sky, with time, sight, and perception. Her early “Locator” works from 1972 were T-shaped pipes through which the viewer focused on land- and cityscapes apparently too vast to be “seen,” implying that the eye is a hole in the body connecting body to environment and vice versa. All Holt’s public works are tools for seeing. Viewers don’t look at them but through them to discover other realms. Pipes—from short tubes through landscape features, to huge concrete tunnels, to shining silver networks—were her chosen vehicle for what I’ve called “tunnel vision.”

The proximity (in the Western sense) of Sun Tunnels to Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, means that they are often seen together and complement each other, as did their makers. When I went with Nancy to see both pieces, we began the tour at the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Wendover, Utah, complex. These three sites exemplify early Land art and its offspring, from romantic colonialism to laid-back photographic documentation of more ominous everyday land use. Holt’s work was often place-specific rather than merely site-specific. Pipeline, 1986, in Alaska, was a rare political comment, while Spinwinder, 1991, in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, incorporated local, family, and industrial history. There are few bodies of public art that are simultaneously so cohesive and so varied.

In 1995, Holt moved to the tiny village of Galisteo, New Mexico, where I had recently settled. With two other aging New Yorkers (artists Harmony Hammond and May Stevens), we called ourselves the Galisteo Gals. Nancy and I had a fine old time exploring our new community and state. I especially remember a local guru claiming that our whole basin was underlaid by crystals, watching thousands of sandhill cranes rise into the sky before dawn at the Bosque del Apache, and hanging out with Phil Glass at the opening of the Dwan Light Sanctuary in nearby Montezuma. We rarely talked art, but, like siblings, we recognized subtle parallels in our past lives. We had, in a sense, come up together. I frequently wrote about Holt’s work; as often as my own direction changed and changed again, cross-references to her art kept surfacing. For HALUMINA (HArmony LUcy MIchelle NAncy)—our occasional “hiking club”—our friend Michelle Goodman made a photocollage that Nancy tweaked into infinity.

Nancy had a quiet, offbeat sense of humor. She was a periodically sociable recluse and an unflappable perfectionist, having faced tragedy and adversity since childhood with remarkable calm. Involved for many years with Vipassana Buddhism, she taught meditation at a Santa Fe sangha to which she remained attached, although she insisted to some close friends (myself included) that she was “not a Buddhist.” Nevertheless, Nancy’s beloved and loquacious cat was named Karuna (compassion). She was found on the side of the road as a kitten in 2000 by writer Rebecca Solnit, who recalls her emergence from the “windy, fragrant, supercharged, golden-light-saturated aftermath of a thunderstorm” on the anniversary of Smithson’s death. Holt was fascinated by synchronicity, but her death was untimely.

Lucy R. Lippard is a cultural critic based in Galisteo, NM, and the author of twenty-three books on contemporary art.