New York

Nancy Holt

Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University

Standing tall in black aluminum at twenty feet, Nancy Holt’s monumental outdoor sculpture Solar Rotary, 1995, comprises a swirling design that casts tribal tattoo–like shadows on a plaza’s grounds at the University of South Florida, Tampa. Beneath the work (which I remember fondly from when I was a teen) and the typically oppressive midday sun is a bench, cradling one of the most interesting objects to be found in the area––a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite, discovered in Miami-Dade County. Holt’s long-standing interest in astronomical themes, so overt in this example, seemed to loom large in an excellent survey of her early output between 1966 and 1980 at Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery. Curated by Alena J. Williams, “Sightlines” nicely articulates, if inadvertently, that even during the very first stages of Holt’s career, the artist often blended the cool, dry aesthetics of Conceptual art—text, grids, black-and-white photography—with a mystical and romantic sensibility. Also evident is that Holt wove celestial seasonings into her impressive large-scale Earthworks of the mid-1970s (on view here via photographic and filmic documentation). While the show offers just a portion of her prolific output, we can be grateful that a concurrently published book of critical essays is dedicated to Holt’s entire oeuvre—even if, quite surprisingly, it is the first.

Many illuminating discoveries were on view in two vitrines in the first gallery. For instance, in the 1972 drawing Making Waves, Holt self-critically plots her progression over time as “feminist,” “artist,” and “mystic” with three curves on a sheet of graph paper. Adjacent were less numinous, yet similarly pensive concrete poems she wrote in the late ’60s (notably during a stint as an assistant editor at Harper’s Bazaar), in addition to ephemera and sound recordings related to her audio tours of 1972, in which she painstakingly guided listeners around a space, allowing for intersubjectivity and mutual perception between the artist and the audience.

Adorning the walls of this gallery are multiple examples of Holt’s innovative work in serial, outdoor photography from 1967 to 1985 (“Western Graveyards,” 1968, and “Trail Markers,” 1969, among others) that portend the Earthworks she would begin constructing a few years later. Also in this vein are pictures of her “Locators,” 1971—a series of indoor and outdoor sculptures that highlight her interests in perception (another omnipresent theme in the show)—and perhaps the most absorbing find of all, photographs and documents related to her “Buried Poems,” 1969–71, a series of “private” works she concealed in such “non-sites,” to borrow her husband Robert Smithson’s term, as an unnamed island in the Florida Keys, and Arches National Park in Utah.

Over the years, Holt often used any additional funds she accrued from the production of her outdoor sculptures to make films. Sun Tunnels, 1973–76, a captivating twenty-six-minute piece, is installed in a large viewing gallery amid other 16-mm documentary gems such as Pine Barrens, 1975, and Swamp, 1971, and the mixed-media “home movie” Mono Lake, 1968–2004. Almost completely silent and with an unhurried pace, Sun Tunnels prominently features shots of construction workers cutting, molding, moving, and shaping Holt’s iconic sculpture with industrial tools. A vital document that opens up questions of labor, production, and gender in America during the Vietnam War era—as well as Holt’s social role as artist, manager, and worker—the film was yet another high point of the show, foregrounding several issues worth addressing in a much-needed retrospective look at the artist’s entire career.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler