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Nancy Holt Artworks

American Sculptor, Conceptual Artist, Photographer, and Filmmaker

Nancy Holt Photo

Born: April 5, 1938 - Worcester, Massachusetts

Died: February 8, 2014 - New York, New York

Artworks by Nancy Holt

The below artworks are the most important by Nancy Holt - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

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)

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.

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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.

Hydra's Head (1974)

Hydra's Head is one of a number of important, large-scale commissions that enabled Holt to explore ideas that transcend the boundaries of sculpture, architecture, installation, and land art. Inspired by the history of the region, Hydra's Head is essentially a monument to the native inhabitants of the region and a connection with nature that has been lost. According to the original inhabitants of Lewiston, New York (the Seneca Indians) "pools of water are the eyes of the earth." Inspired by this saying, this site-specific work set along the Niagara River in Lewiston is comprised of six sunken cylinders holding water. Arranged in the same configuration as the constellation, Hydra, the mythical water serpent, each pool is a tiny mirror for a single star. At night, the pools reflect the stars above, as if the sky has fallen at one's feet.

Sun Tunnels (1976)

Sun Tunnels (1976)

Holt collaborated with engineers, astronomers, pipe manufacturers, and many other professionals to complete her most ambitious and famous work, Sun Tunnels. Sometimes called the "American Stonehenge," this Minimalist-inspired suite of four concrete pipes forms a cross with an open center. Each pipe points in one of the four cardinal directions. Measuring 9 feet high by 18 feet long, each axis aligns perfectly with the sunrise and sunset of the winter and summer solstices, when the sun appears centered within the tunnels.

In addition, each tube is perforated with holes in the shape of a specific constellation: Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn. During the day, sunlight streams through the holes and projects the constellations inside the tunnels, connecting earth and sky.

Holt purchased the land in 1973 in a remote valley in the Great Basin Desert in northwest Utah: "I had the sense that I was perhaps walking on a piece of land that nobody had ever walked on before - the natives who lived there hundreds of years ago, I'm sure they didn't step on every piece of my 40 acres - and that was thrilling to me" she later remembered.

With nothing around for miles (not even service facilities), one approaches the work by car, and then on foot. The awe-inspiring pilgrimage is part of the work itself. Holt's aim for the work, as she put it, was to "bring the vast space of the desert back down to human scale," and indicate the "cyclical time" of the solar year. Although there is no substitute for the direct experience, visitors' descriptions convey a feeling of being at the center of the universe. The tunnels "emanate brute power" said one recent guest. "There, in the middle of nowhere, a person suddenly is placed in the middle of everywhere," said another.

Sun Tunnels made Holt one of few women artists to gain recognition amid the male-dominated Land Art scene of the 1970s.

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Dark Star Park (1984)

Dark Star Park (1984)

The experience of Dark Star Park is one of contrast. Unlike the remote settings, in which most of Holt's works are situated, it is surrounded by straight roads and rectilinear buildings at the heart of the busy commercial center in Rosslyn, Virginia (just outside Washington, D.C.). Five large concrete spheres placed at intervals resemble fallen stars that no longer shine - hence the park's name. Four black metal poles, asphalt impressions on the ground, two reflecting pools, a stairway, and two concrete tunnels (one is large enough to pass through; the other is for viewing only) comprise the work.

Commissioned by Arlington County in 1979 and completed in 1984, Dark Star Park alters one's perception of the urban environment for those who experience it. Holt's switchback pathway snaking through spheres disobeys the conventional wisdom that the shortest (and, implicitly best) distance between two points is a straight line. This slow route through the park forces urban life to slow down. In the words of the art critic Lucy Lippard, the experience is one of "intimacy with vastness, a sense of one's individual place, at this very moment, in the universe."

While displaying none of the signs (figures on horseback, obelisks, etc.), or even a title that would identify it as such, Dark Star Park is a historical monument. It commemorates an important date in Arlington's history. On August 1, 1860, William Ross bought the land that today is Rosslyn. Every year on August 1, at 9:32 a.m., the shadows cast by the poles align, and two of the spheres cast shadows that fall precisely within the lines of the asphalt impressions beside them, commemorating that date (August 1, 1860), as Holt described it, "merging historical time with the cyclical time of the sun". Dark Star Park was not only a breakthrough in Holt's career, enabling her to work as a sculptor and landscape designer, but also advanced the then nascent field of public art and its impact on the transformation of cities. It was also a breakthrough for women, emboldening others, like Maya Lin, to enter the field of public art.

Pipeline (1986)

In the 1980s, environmental concerns entered directly into Holt's work. Pipeline is one of the earliest examples of this. While completing a residency in Anchorage, the artist was struck by the abundance of pipelines running through Alaska, known to cause environmental harm when oil leaks out through small holes caused by corrosion. Pipeline, made from the same industrial stuff as the real Alaskan pipeline, originated outside the gallery and snaked along the inside wall (shown here), where it leaked oil onto the pristine floor. Making its point in stark visual terms, it also engages the theme of enclosure, a leitmotif in Holt's earlier work. In employing materials one might more readily find in a basement or control room, raising the question "is it or isn't it" (art), Pipeline reflects Holt's longstanding engagement with Conceptual art. As a hybrid indoor/outdoor sculpture, it aligns Holt with other Land Artists who wished to call attention to the gallery setting as an artificial and limiting environment for art.

Related Artists and Major Works

Spiral Jetty (1970)

Spiral Jetty (1970)

Movement: Earth Art (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Robert Smithson (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Realized in April 1970, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty is one of the most recognizable works from the Earth art movement. Smithson constructed a 1,500-foot-long and fifteen-foot-wide spiral made of stones, algae, and other organic materials (6,000 tons in all) in the northeastern part of Utah's Great Salt Lake. The Ace Gallery of Vancouver and Dwan financed an earth-moving company to create the spiral out of basalt rock and earth from the surrounding area. In 1972, when the water level rose, the work became submerged. Thirty years later, as the lake's water levels changed, Spiral Jetty became visible again, revealing the basalt rock crusted over with white salt. The work was inspired by the Pre-Columbian structure Serpent Mound, which Smithson had seen on a site visit in Ohio. Spiral Jetty and Smithson's body of work as a whole were typical of Earth art in their protest against the commodification of the art market since it was impossible to buy or sell the work. The physical mutability and even invisibility of the work resulting from natural processes, such as water currents and erosion, were essential to its meaning. As a work of art that was not only remote, but also at times impossible to view because of the forces of nature, Spiral Jetty is one of the best examples of Earth art and also underscores the movement's roots in Conceptualism.

The Wave Field (1995)

Artist: Maya Lin (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Designed for the FXB Aerospace Building on the University of Michigan campus, this outdoor sculptural installation engages one of Lin's earliest and most fundamental passions: science. Specifically inspired by the movement of water, the work is about fluidity. A three-month study of fluid dynamics, aerodynamics, and turbulence, conducted by the artist on site, preceded the work. While visibly indebted to other large-scale Earth Works (Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty comes to mind), alignment between the conceptual and formal properties of Lin's work is much closer. For example, its precise 90' by 90' grid of rising crests mimics that of a naturally occurring wave. Lin selected a particular wave type that brought together all areas she had been researching, including fluid dynamics, flight resistance, and turbulence.

Literally part of the ground on which the artist designed it, this delightful sculpture is at once playful and intellectual. Walking across it is quite different from viewing it through the window of one of the adjacent classrooms. It changes throughout the day as the sun passes and shadows emerge on different parts of it, achieving Lin's goal to highlight the interconnectedness between art and landscape.

Tilted Arc (1981)

Artist: Richard Serra (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

According to its critics, Tilted Arc forced people to walk around, rather than directly across its chosen site of Federal Plaza, in a downtown New York City business district (where indeed global powerbrokers are accustomed to walking in very straight, or goal-oriented trajectories). There can be no doubt, then, that Tilted Arc is Serra's most successful (if ultimately publicly vilified) expression of his underlying desire to incorporate direct viewer participation into the sculptural experience, or his work as an unavoidably material and visual "phenomenon." When asked what he thought people found so problematic in this work, Serra laughed and replied, with typical impatience for too much interpretation over the art work's own "meaning," that it was the curve to which the general public was negatively responding: "They hadn't seen that before. Modernism was at a right angle; the whole 20th century was a right angle." He might as well been referring to the city itself (no less to a large part of 20th-century architectural history), as New York is virtually a methodical grid upon which Serra had, without doubt, boldly trespassed. Tilted Arc indeed traffics in an entire spectrum of "interruptive" experiences, such as a train passing, a ship pulling into harbor, a road sign speaking "DETOUR," or a herculean water dam holding back extremely powerful, natural forces. Indeed, deep beneath Lower Manhattan's own geographies there are industrial walls brutally inserted into the found landscape, so as to reclaim entire portions of the Hudson River for human expansion. It is hardly a wonder, therefore, that Tilted Arc aroused such antipathy in an era unaccustomed to such bold displays of artistic, site-specific intervention.

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