Nancy Holt, Points of View, 1974, four-channel video installation, black-and-white, sound, 44 minutes. Video unit: 78 × 48 × 48".

Nancy Holt, Points of View, 1974, four-channel video installation, black-and-white, sound, 44 minutes. Video unit: 78 × 48 × 48".

Nancy Holt


STAR EARTH SKY WATER MOON SUN, reads Nancy Holt’s The World Through a Circle, ca. 1970, a sheet of white paper on which these typewritten words—read in either direction and starting in any location—form just that: a circle, one of the artist’s favorite forms. A HOLE THROUGH THE EARTH, EITHER WAY / DRAWING IN A GLANCE / AND THEN A SECOND LOOK / AND MORE, reads a poem beneath. THE WORLD FOCUSES / AND SPINS OUT AGAIN, SEEN.

Although we know artists’ lives feature no straight lines, no this-therefore-that, no easily charted evolution, we can be tempted to read their early efforts as harbingers of later maturity. But with Holt, who eschewed gallery-based works in favor of Land art early on, there is a pleasing, synchronous circularity to the rare late-1960s and early-’70s concrete poetry displayed in her recent exhibition “Points of View.” Made while Holt was an assistant literary editor at Harper’s Bazaar, these playful pieces hint at themes that would run through her work for the next four years and beyond: vision, site, language, mapping, systems, time, perception—how to question and make concrete these subjective, suggestive concepts. In Hometown, 1969, the names of New Jersey townships and cities are haphazardly clustered in the middle of the page—CLIFTON, HACKENSACK, LODI, PASSAIC, PATERSON, TOTOWA—an associative peregrination of Holt’s childhood state. Chinese Dinner, 1972, assigns spatial orientations and I Ching values to four guests: NANCY HOLT is northwest and CH’IEN, or heaven.

“If work hangs in a gallery or museum,” said Holt, “the art gets made for the spaces that were made to enclose art. They isolate objects, detach them from the world.” The video installation Points of View, 1974, was made for New York’s Clocktower Gallery—a noncommercial gallery in an unorthodox fifteenth-floor space with four cardinally oriented windows, portholes onto the vast world beyond, that inspired Holt’s four-channel piece. A large white cube houses four monitors on which play videos of the Clocktower’s views of Manhattan—north, east, south, west—with commentary. As an exercise in perception and an investigation of the ways in which an image acquires meaning through language, Holt invited four pairings of art-world figures to examine live-feed perspectives as she manipulated what could be seen by placing in front of the lens a tube that restricted vision to its narrow aperture. Each pair follows the shifting circular image as it dances across the otherwise obscured and darkened screen, discussing and frequently disagreeing about what they see. Lucy Lippard and Richard Serra focus on the subjective and fragmentary nature of vision; Carl Andre and Ruth Kligman lapse into tangential anecdotes (Kligman disdains Andre’s claim that he first thought Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures to be hard). Can we—or how can we—see beyond these four walls? the piece asks. And beyond ourselves, too?

In Holt’s work, it is not so much that points of view are relative, but that they are relational—embodied, associative, preternatural. Wistman’s Wood, 1969, made in the ancient wood of Dartmoor in Devon, UK, is one of Holt’s “Buried Poems,” 1969–71, each of which is dedicated to a different individual. “A site evokes a person, and I bury a poem for that person,” she said, documenting each place in a grid of images that becomes the visible work. The first of the series, Wistman’s Wood, is for Robert Smithson, whose persona the site “conjured up,” Holt said, “in a striking way.” California Sun Signs, 1972, traces a journey through the Golden State via photographs of signage incorporating the word sun—SUNDAES, SUNAIR, SUNLAND, words that glint in bleached and glancing light against so much blue sky. Holt’s most famous work, Sun Tunnels, 1973–76, shone in my mind’s eye, and I began to see these images as Holt’s own poem, quiet but persistent, a celestial intonation: sun, sun, SUN.