Land Art Pioneers: Nancy Holt

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UMFA trip to Sun Tunnels viewing with Nancy Holt, October 20, 2012 as part of “Nancy Holt Sightlines, a traveling exhibition” organized by the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University.
Photo: courtesy Utah Museum of Fine Arts

”We stepped off the plane into the vastness of the desert. I had an overwhelming experience of my inner landscape and the outer landscape being identical.”
– Nancy Holt, in “Nancy Holt: Sightlines”

In the year before Land Art pioneer Nancy Holt died, she had finished a new edit of her film about Robert Smithson’s Amarillo Ramp (1973), and had witnessed the first national retrospective of her work. She also left a handful of projects incomplete, and acres of land where new ideas might have been expressed. This combined sense of wholeness and the fragmentary is-for an artist influenced early on by conceptualism and later by Buddhism-part of the enduring framework for Holt’s work, and her legacy to the artists who follow her.

“Her work is full of this duality,” says Matthew Coolidge, director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and a longtime friend of Holt’s.” There/not there, up/down, inside/outside, heavens/earth, life/death, etc./etc. … This embrace of incongruities is a form of awareness that is echoed in the ideals of Buddhism, something she identified with. Maybe to live with such a deep understanding of the fundamental, irreconcilable conflict of existence demands this spiritual support.”

Although she began her career in the galleries of the East Coast in the 1960s, and installed works all over the world, Holt felt most at home in the American West, where her work and that of other Land artists proliferated. She spent her remaining years in Galisteo, New Mexico, a small town within Santa Fe County, before she died at 75 in a New York hospital on February 8 of this year. Doctors cited her long battle with leukemia as the cause.

Just in April, the Dallas Museum of Art closed its screening of “The Making of Amarillo Ramp,” which Holt had filmed in 1973 as Smithson built the mirage-like structure in Texas. In the 1990s, she transferred the film to videotape and recently completed a final edit. It showed at DMA as part of a Smithson exhibition that opened in November 2013.

Holt’s work to preserve her husband’s legacy-she and Smithson married in 1963-since Smithson’s death in 1973, has become as much a part of her bequest as her own contributions to Land Art. Holt was an archivist as well as an artist, and the two sides met whenever she pointed us in certain directions, collecting observations and perspectives, often of Smithson’s work. But she also acted as an archivist of her own perspective.

This is readily apparent in the recent retrospective of Holt’s work, titled “Nancy Holt: Sightlines,” that closed in January 2013 after two years on a road that began in New York at Columbia University’s Wallach Gallery, and ended last year at the Utah Museum of Fine Art. The curator of that show, Alena J. Williams, also prepared a book of the same title to accompany the show. Composed of essays and interviews by Coolidge, Lucy Lippard, Williams, and a host of others, including the artist herself, “Sightlines” is an archival document, exploring various themes in Holt’s work and chronicling her life from the galleries of the East Coast where she associated with minimalists, to her sudden interest in the relationship between her inner (metaphysical) and outer (physical) life, which took her out West.

A gallery exhibition of Land Art inevitably consists more of photographs than actual work. But in the case of Holt’s work, the photos themselves are part of the concept, as is the viewer who is required to activate them through the practice of observation. We see this in her series of site tubes, or “locators,” which in Coolidge’s words act as “devices for seeing more clearly;” the perspectives we see are not only documented by the photographs, but enabled by them.

When “Sightlines” stopped at the Santa Fe Art Institute in 2012,a collection of photographs, called Western Graveyards (1968), articulated this point about perspective. The piece depicts graveyards worn by time and the elements, the earth within these crude frames emphasizing what Holt often referred to as a process of reducing large concepts such as the desert to a human scale. Coolidge believes these images achieve her vision of the West as a place to explore the inner/outer realm connection, even better than her own constructions. He describes them as “desiccated, broken, isolated individual plots. Modest rectangular-ish, designated pieces of ground. A claim for a departed soul, left to the elements, to be remembered until it is forgotten.”

“Sightlines” repeatedly demonstrates the contrary nature of Holt’s work. Each piece is grand in scale but simple in design (especially in her use of materials like concrete, earth and water); they are sometimes small, but full of big ideas. The less they appear like artworks, the more they ask of us, pointing to the finite as a way of contemplating the infinite.

Perhaps the grandest and best known of Holt’s work in the West-or anywhere else, for that matter-is Sun Tunnels (1976), a set of four enormous cement tubes astrologically aligned for the summer and winter solstices in Utah’s Great Basin Desert. It’s across the Great Salt Lake from Smithson’s black basalt masterpiece Spiral Jetty (1970).

“The Smithson work is very terrestrial, grounded literally. The rock and materials were moved from the site to create another proprietary form about terrestriality, if you will,” says Coolidge. “Sun Tunnels was made of concrete in the Salt Lake area, trucked to the location in order to be a displaced object that enabled visitors to leave the terrestriality of the site to connect where they are to the cosmos, literally by lining up to the heavens.”

Coolidge says that, being true to Holt’s vision, any discussion on the future of her work will have to consider the paradoxical virtues of allowing the sites to decay naturally, and preserving their legacy for future generations. “If the site is preserved it become more and more detached from the world that is decaying around it,” he says. “The only thing that is unnatural is forever.”

—MATTHEW IRWIN