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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

"My art seemed to have a life of its own, which kept me transfixed"

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

Initially there was no alignment between Land art and environmentalism. Many early Land artworks actively damaged the land. Holt was one of the first artists to use outdoor art as a platform for environmental activism. She introduced ideas central to environmental protection, conservation, and stewardship that were not initially central to the art movement.
"I have a strong desire to make people conscious of the cyclical time of the universe," the artist once said. Time-based elements (human, geographic, or celestial) in her sculptures place us at the center of a participatory experience. The theme of recording time gives her work an effect that is immediate, and at the same time, eternal.
Her sculptural installations feature enclosures that frame our experience of nature. The act of framing, a recurring theme in Holt's work, functions as a metaphor for visual observation and is the genesis of many of her projects.
Holt's site-specific installations never seek to rival nature, but challenge us to look more closely at our environment. Hydra's Head, a configuration of small cylinders that might be mistaken for a drainage system, or Missoula Ranch Locators: Vision Encompassed, steel viewfinders distributed across an open field, are examples of her minimalist strategy that reinforces our connection with nature, attuning our senses to what is present around us.
While Smithson, Heizer, de Maria and others engaged in a contest to see who could make the largest mark on earth (almost as if it were a big canvas), Holt grasped the most radical implications of the Land Art movement. Integration - as opposed to competition - with the elements was her goal. While fully aware that this more subtle approach would not win her the immediate admiration of the art world, she explained, "I was emphasizing being over becoming. And in the art world it's a hard stance." In emphasizing Land over Art, Holt's remarkably visionary aim anticipated the future of the movement.
Although widely represented through photographs, which Holt described as "memory traces," the work was only complete, Holt insisted, through direct experience. This is especially evident in Sun Tunnels, her most famous work, where the changing conditions of weather and light transform the work from one moment to the next.
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.

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