New Design

Nancy Holt

American Sculptor, Conceptual Artist, Photographer, and Filmmaker

Nancy Holt Photo
Born: April 5, 1938
Worcester, Massachusetts
Died: February 8, 2014
New York, New York
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My art seemed to have a life of its own, which kept me transfixed
Nancy Holt

Summary of Nancy Holt

Nancy Holt fell in love with the American West, and embraced its vast, wide-open spaces as a kind of museum without walls. Her concrete and steel constructions helped free sculpture from the gallery context. These contemplative, often elegiac monuments to time and to the land, emphasize close observation. Free thinkers and art enthusiasts still travel for miles to observe the summer and winter solstice from inside her Sun Tunnels (1979), four colossal tubes that frame the rising and setting sun. While overshadowed by her celebrated husband, Robert Smithson, Holt produced a body of work distinct from his, and more forward-looking in its implications. In a leave-no-trace approach, some of Holt's best work is barely there. Earlier and more immediately than the other Land Artists, Holt saw the connection between art and eco-activism. Like light from a faraway star, some of Holt's ideas were so far ahead of their time that the art world has yet to fully acknowledge them.

Key Ideas

Biography of Nancy Holt

Nancy Holt Photo

Holt was born on April 5, 1938 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father was a chemical engineer and her mother a homemaker, both New Englanders. When Holt turned three the family relocated to New Jersey in what was supposed to be a temporary move. Her father believed he would be transferred back to Massachusetts, which never happened. Holt's early life was shaped by a series of moves that made her feel "oddly displaced" and alone. As an only child, Holt observed "many overlooked or unacknowledged things" that later give rise to artworks. Her family moved first to Bloomfield and then again to Clifton, New Jersey, where Holt attended high school. One of Holt's high school classmates was Robert Smithson, Holt's future husband and the leader of the Land Art movement. It wasn't until later that the two became friends.

Important Art by Nancy Holt

Concrete Visions (1967)

Concrete Visions (1967)

Heavily informed by Minimalism and Conceptual art, Holt's early photographs laid the foundation for her sculptural efforts. In the late 1960s, Holt photographed some of the sites where Smithson would obtain the industrial materials to make his work. While at first glance these photographs may appear straightforwardly documentary, they are in fact explorations of perception.

Concrete Visions, intended to be displayed as it is shown here, features four sequential shots of a concrete yard filled with building blocks. Clockwise from the upper left, Holt approaches the motif. Aligning her shots with the edges of the blocks, Holt sees frames within frames. By arranging her photographs in sequences, and often as a grid, Holt offered multiple perspectives that comprise the whole work of art, rejecting the one-point perspective, customary to traditional art and art photography. In the bottom two shots, her camera tilts to the right, giving the composition an unsteady look and reminding us that the artist is moving. The framing of space, the passage of time, the remote location, and the industrial materials featured in this early series are ideas that would reach their full fruition in Holt's site-specific installations.

Western Graveyards (1968)

Western Graveyards (1968)

Here as in Concrete Visions (1967), frames within frames call attention to the act of selection. On her first trip out West in 1968 with Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, the excitement of this new environment was so overpowering that Holt could not sleep for days. The small graves she photographed in Virginia City, Nevada, and Lone Pine, California were of particular interest to her. She later recalled that she was drawn to the graves because they captured "how people thought about space out West; their last desire was to delineate a little plot of their own because there was so much vastness." Delineating the grave and preserving it as a work of art, Holt's camera performs a similar action in her series, Western Graveyards, which includes the two works shown here. These earth-bound rectangles were part of the inspiration for Holt's approach to Land Art as a series of enclosures in the earth. Mimicking Minimalist sculpture (and perhaps specifically the work of Carl Andre), Western Graveyards turns graves into sculptures. Imagine these as gallery installation shots, with the sky standing in for the ceiling and the earth as the floor.

Missoula Ranch Locators: Vision Encompassed (1972)

Missoula Ranch Locators: Vision Encompassed (1972)

Missoula Ranch Locators: Vision Encompassed was an interactive sculptural installation designed to restrict the viewer's experience of a vast, open space. Commissioned in 1971 and begun in Holt's New York studio, the work was comprised of eight viewfinders ranging from one and one-half to two inches in diameter and distributed across a wide field in Missoula, Montana. Each viewfinder (Holt referred to it as a "locator") was made of two steel pipes welded together in a t-formation, and positioned at eye level so the viewer could look through the upper pipe. Set in compass directions aligned with the North Star, the locators limited the view so that each individual stationed at the locator could only see what was inside a tiny circle of faraway land. In doing so, Holt forces the viewer to focus on specific objects, phenomena, or views, including those of other locators around them. Unable to gauge the distance between oneself and the distant view made viewers feel more connected to each other and the land.

Three years later, the work was dismantled by a subsequent owner of the land. In 2012, Holt recreated the project on the campus of the University of Avignon in France, where it is now a permanent installation.

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Content compiled and written by Catarina Flaksman

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein

"Nancy Holt Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Catarina Flaksman
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein
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First published on 27 Feb 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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