Nancy Holt is an important earthwork/site-specific artist who happened to be married to another earthwork artist, Robert Smithson. Nancy Holt was born in 1938 in Worchester, Massachusetts. She attended Tufts University from 1956 to 1960 where she attained her Bachelors degree in Biology. After graduation, Holt moved to New York City where she met Robert Smithson, who she eventually married in 1963.
Nancy Holt's career as an artist did not begin until 1968 when she and Robert Smithson began to explore the possibilities of video and film together. Holt and Smithson made five films together between 1963 and 1973; "Untitled (Mono Lake)"(1968), "East Coast, West Coast" (1969), "Spiral Jetty" (1970), "Swamp" (1971), and "Amarillo Ramp" (1973).
The videos, "Spiral Jetty" and "Amarillo Ramp" document the companion earthwork pieces by Smithson. The video, "East Coast, West Coast" was made in black and white with sound featuring both Holt and Smithson with two of their friends. The video captures the differing artistic cultures between the west coast and east coast including the common stereotypes and attitudes encompassed by the artists. "Swamp" is a video made in color with sound filmed in the swamplands of the New Jersey Meadowlands. Holt carried the camera while guided by Smithson into the swampy area encountering many obstructions along the way.
Although Holt had collaborated with Smithson on the videos and her artistic career started after she married Smithson, she has become an important artist in her own right. Holt worked on her own earthwork sculptures. After a trip out west with Smithson, Holt connected with the earth, which eventually became her medium of artistic expression. One of the first pieces she created is called "Buried Poems," which is a series of poems buried in the ground at different locations. The poems were written for her friends who could only to find them with the aid of maps. The location for each map was chosen based on the recipient's particular personality and interests.
In addition to her interest in the environment, Nancy Holt had a desire to reorient the viewer's eye and to cause them to notice settings that would have otherwise have gone unrecognized. Holt is obsessed with the circle because it is often used to draw in the visitor's eye.
Her work, "Views Through a Sand Dune" (1972) was a temporary work installed into a sand dune on the Narragansett Beach in Rhode Island. Holt placed a 5 1/2 foot circular steel pipe through a sand dune along the beach. The steel pipe provided a view through the sand dune which otherwise would have blocked one's sight. Her work, "Missoula Ranch Locaters" (1972) continued to explore the same goal of playing with the viewer's perception. The piece consisted of eight, 12-inch long pipe viewers, which were placed in a 40-foot circle in an open field. Each locator could be rotated 360 degrees to allow the viewer to focus in on any number of landscapes.
In 1974, Holt created a temporary earthwork called "Hydras Head" at Artpark, next to the Niagara River below Niagara Falls. A number of concrete tubes were embedded vertically in the earth, their open ends forming pools of still water from a series of pumps, which took water from the river up into the tubes. Circular in form, the stillness of the pools displayed a marked contrast to the raging Niagara River below.
Holt carried her interest of the viewer's perception into video. She made the videos, "Locating #1" and "Locating #2" in 1972. They document what it is like to look through a viewer versus seeing the entire landscape all together. It allows the viewer to piece together what the entire landscape may look like with the various clues provided by the circle prior to the revealing of the entire landscape.
In 1973, Holt created two videos, "Zeroing In" and "Going Around In Circles" which continue her interest in the perception of visual data disconnected from their normal context. Both videos contain a board with five circular holes placed in front of the camera. Each hole becomes a focal point in which the viewer gathers enough information to develop a mental picture of understanding.
These experiments in perception led Holt to create her masterpiece, "Sun Tunnels" in 1976. "Sun Tunnels" is a site specific earthwork in the remote Great Basin Desert in Northwest Utah, not too far from the Great Salt Lake where Smithson's masterpiece, the "Spiral Jetty" is located. She purchased the land in 1974 and began to work on it in 1975. The piece consists of four concrete tunnels, each 18 feet long with an internal diameter of 8 feet. They are permanently mounted on concrete foundations level with the earth.
Inside these massive tunnels, sunlight pierces through a number of circular holes in the 7 1/4 inch thick wall. The sizes of the holes range between 7-10 inches in diameter. The light within the tunnels constantly changes as the sun moves through its course in the sky. The holes align themselves with four different constellations; Draco, Perseus, Columbia, and Capricorn.
The positions of the tunnels are also aligned to a specific natural phenomenon on the earth. During Winter and Summer solstices, around June 21st and December 21st, the sun is centered exactly through the tunnels from the horizon. Again, Holt has oriented the viewer's eye through a circle to notice a particular natural phenomenon through the framework of her art.
Nancy Holt resided in New York City until 1995 when she decided to move to Galisteo, New Mexico. After receiving a Lifetime Acheivement Award from the International Sculputure Center, in New York, she returned to New Mexico, only to become ill and enter the hospital, traveling to New York for treatment. She passed away in February of 2014.
Page author: L.C. & C.F.