Nancy Holt - Biography and Legacy
American Sculptor, Conceptual Artist, Photographer, and Filmmaker
New York, New York
Biography of Nancy Holt
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.
Early Training and work
As an undergraduate at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, Holt was interested in both science and art. Her passion for "unusual plants and animals and the systems that kept them alive" led her to choose biology as a major. She attended lectures at MIT that bridged the gap between art and science. During her third year in college, Holt began traveling to New York to see art and meet artists. During one of these visits, a friend reintroduced her to her former high school classmate Smithson. The two of them connected and began what would be a decade-long exchange of ideas on art and science.
Holt graduated in 1960 and traveled around Europe with friends. She then moved to Manhattan and commuted daily to work as a researcher at the Lederle Labs in Pearl River. In 1962 her mother died of cancer. A few months later her father died from a heart attack. Holt quit her job, moved with Smithson to a loft in the West Village, and married him in June of 1963.
During this transformative period, Holt remembered feeling a mixture of grief and liberation. To support herself, she served as assistant literary editor at Harper's Bazaar and taught at the Downtown Community School. In addition, she began an "interior investigation", relying extensively on literature, and "digging into metaphysics, poetry, and Jungian psychology" in order to understand her own psychology.
By the mid-1960s, Holt was well acquainted with Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, Eva Hesse, Joan Jonas, Michael Heizer, and Robert Morris, and was immersed in the culture of two radical movements, Conceptual art and Minimalism. Her concrete poems and photographs of New Jersey sites during trips with Smithson and friends are vital additions to these movements.
In 1968, in the company of Smithson and Heizer, Holt visited the American West for the first time. She later recalled experiencing the desert and mountains, and on a vast scale unlike anything she had previously experienced, as a major turning point in her life and career. The next year, Holt and Smithson traveled to Europe to visit ancient archeological sites in England, including Stonehenge and Dartmoor. These too influenced her perception of landscape.
By the early 1970s Holt had begun to photograph and video Smithson's work, making a film of his now celebrated Spiral Jetty in Utah and photographing sites in California, Nevada, New Jersey, and beyond. Holt's first solo exhibitions featuring these photographs took place in 1972 at the University of Montana, Rhode Island University, and at the Institute for Art and Urban Resources in New York City.
Smithson died tragically in a plane crash on July 20, 1973. He had been headed to Texas to work on Amarillo Ramp, his latest project. Holt, who often accompanied him, had decided to remain at home to focus on Sun Tunnels, her own work in progress. After Smithson's death, Holt completed Amarillo Ramp with sculptor Richard Serra and art dealer Tony Shafrazi, and turned her attention to editing The Writings of Robert Smithson (1979), a seminal work that would help define the emerging field of Land Art.
After 1973, Holt dedicated a significant portion of energy in the coming years to the management of her late husband's legacy, while continuing to pursue her own work. In 1975 Holt moved to Utah for a year to complete Sun Tunnels, a project she had placed on hold after her husband's death. She then slept on top of a van for several nights, photographing and filming the work at different times during the day. Also during the mid-seventies and eighties, Holt contributed to the development of the emerging field of public art, completing several commissions.
In the 1980s she began to create "functional" works that reflected growing environmental consciousness. Holt's explorations of water, electrical, and ventilation systems from these years focus on the limitations of the earth's natural resources.
In 1995 Holt left New York and settled in Galisteo, New Mexico, where she began exploring the high desert in Northern New Mexico. In 1999 Holt entered a period of introspection, meditation, and reading that removed her from the sphere of the art world, traveling to India and Nepal and returning to teach meditation in 2001.
While retreating from the public eye, Holt remained a writer and artist until the end of her life, creating public art works, installations, photographs, and films in the United States and abroad. She completed ambitious, multi-year projects, both her own and Smithson's, and in her late career she oversaw the restoration of a few of her earlier works - including Dark Star Park in Virginia.
In 2007 Holt reentered the public arena as an environmental activist, protesting against the auction oil and gas rights on land adjacent to Sun Tunnels. The next year she protested against drilling oil in the north arm of the Great Salt Lake, which would impact Smithson's Spiral Jetty only a few miles away.
Nancy Holt: Sightlines, Holt's first retrospective, opened at Columbia University and traveled to other cities in the U.S. and Europe from 2010-2012. The artist was in her early 70s. She died at age 75 in 2014 from Leukemia.
The Legacy of Nancy Holt
Holt's contribution to late-20th-century art remains underemphasized, but what Holt achieved is all the more remarkable given the barriers she faced. Land Art was one of the most male-dominated movements. Women, it was assumed, were less capable of conceiving of large-scale projects. They also were presumed to lack the physical stamina to operate forklifts, cranes, and industrial equipment necessary to complete the work. Both assumptions were ridiculous, especially the second, since virtually all Land Artists worked with teams of skilled laborers who operated the heavy machinery and completed the grunt work. These assumptions had real consequences, however. Six and seven-figure grants from foundations, galleries and private donors went to men. Before Holt's Sun Tunnels, all major Land Art projects (Spiral Jetty (1969), Double Negative (1969), Lightning Field (1977)) had been completed by male artists.
Like Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, and Gabriel Munter, Holt devoted much of her career to preserving her husband's legacy, putting many of her own projects on hold. While never receiving the level of support or encouragement to complete a body of work that rivaled his, Holt broke the glass ceiling, paving the way for the ascension of one the most brilliant Land Artists, Maya Lin, whose work is visibly indebted to Holt's in its focus on ecology, history, and complex systems in nature. Holt's interest in astronomy set an important precedent for her slightly younger, but much more famous, contemporary James Turrell, who is still boring holes into the Roden Crater, an underground astrological observatory he began building, perhaps not coincidentally, the year after Holt completed Sun Tunnels. Carol Bove's unobtrusive installation entitled Caterpillar (2013) along the stretch of New York City's High Line Park is visibly indebted to Holt's subtle modifications, blending in with surroundings.