The Celestial Alignments of Nancy Holt

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The Celestial Alignments of Nancy Holt

When Nancy Holt died from leukemia in 2014, she still owned about 95% of her artworks. Her 50-year oeuvre includes concrete poetry, photography, video works, drawings, installation art, and artists’ books. Promoting it is among the primary projects of the Holt/Smithson Foundation, which also fosters the legacy of Holt’s more famous — and institutionally collected — husband, Robert Smithson.

“It’s really a 20-year project,” says Lisa Le Feuvre, the inaugural executive director of the organization, which launched its programming in 2018 and shutters in 2038. Upon its dissolution the Holt/Smithson Foundation will transfer its digital archives to a to-be-determined research institution and bequeath its land holdings in Utah and Maine to Indigenous nations or nature conservancies.

Holt is best known for astronomically calibrated earthworks such as Utah’s “Sun Tunnels (1973–76) and Virginia’s “Dark Star Park (1984), but much of her work is as ephemeral as the foundation that bears her name. “It was painful, because I had no product,” Holt once said of her career. “And especially as a woman in the art world at that time, you had to have something to show.”

Among the foundation’s initiatives is an annual lecture series. Author Rebecca Solnit appeared at this year’s event, which took place on April 1 at the New Mexico Museum of Art, with Le Feuvre and art critic Lucy Lippard (who is on the foundation’s board of directors). Solnit and Lippard both knew Holt, and all three lived in Galisteo, New Mexico, for years.

“When I point at the moon, don’t look at my finger, look at the moon,” Solnit said early in her lecture, quoting a Buddhist teaching. “Nancy Holt’s work pointed at the moon more or less literally. Much of it was instruments for directing viewers not to her objects, but with and through them to celestial alignments and features of the landscape.”

On the heels of the event, I conducted separate interviews with Le Feuvre and Lippard about Holt and her legacy. Excerpts from these distinct conversations highlight the complexity of honoring an artist who emphatically pointed away from herself and into the wider world.

Nancy Holt, “Electrical System II: Bellman Circuit” (1982), 3/4 inch steel conduit, lighting and electrical fixtures, light bulbs, electrical wire, length: 55 feet; width: 24 feet; height: 9 1⁄2 feet, David Bellman Gallery, Toronto (© Holt/Smithson Foundation / Licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York)

Jordan Eddy: Lucy, you moved to Galisteo in 1993 and Nancy followed two years later. Could you tell me about your time together in New Mexico?

Lucy Lippard: I knew her in New York since the ’60s, of course, but genuinely she was crazy about the West. She wrote me out of the blue and said, do you know a place I can stay or rent? I said Galisteo. Harmony Hammond didn’t know Nancy in New York, but she was teaching at University of Arizona at that point, so Nancy rented her house for a semester. We had fun driving around and seeing things. Galisteo was a perfect place for her in that it’s both rural and urban. People were always saying to me, you moved to Santa Fe. I’d say, no I did not. I moved to Galisteo.

JE: In Nancy’s obituary in Artforum you wrote, “We rarely talked art, but, like siblings, we recognized subtle parallels in our past lives. We had, in a sense, come up together.” What a friendship.

LL: We miss her, the Galisteo Gals. It was Harmony Hammond and me and Nancy and May Stevens, who didn’t live in Galisteo but was close enough to be a Gal. And we were all from New York and we bonded around a lot of old stuff. 

JE: You once traveled to Utah with Nancy to see her earthwork “Sun Tunnels” and Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty.” Did you discuss Nancy’s work with her during that trip?

LL: We didn’t have that kind of a relationship where I was the critic and she was the artist.

JE: But even if the two of you didn’t talk much about her work, you’ve certainly followed her arc through your writing, right?

LL: The trouble is that I was following the arc of a few hundred artists, so I wasn’t paying that much attention to the arc. I hate the whole legacy thing, I think it’s a little overdone. Now and then I do write an obituary, but I like writing the first article on people. I like watching them start their careers, rather than just constantly writing about somebody. I know a lot of writers do that and I just haven’t. I haven’t really followed anybody through their career.

Nancy Holt with locator during the construction of “Missoula Ranch Locators: Vision Encompassed” (1972), Montana (photograph Michael Wheatley, © Holt/Smithson Foundation / Licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York)

JE: Could you tell me a bit about first meeting Nancy? Did you have a sense of kinship early on?

LL: I didn’t really know that Nancy was an artist for quite a long time. She did that crossword puzzle about my Eccentric Abstraction show, and I remember being sort of surprised at that because I didn’t know her that well. Bob Smithson was very much central and he did a lot of talking and so forth, and Nancy wasn’t competitive with him at all on that level. So it took me a while to really realize what a fascinating artist she was. 

JE: Lisa, some of Nancy’s earliest artworks were concrete poems and other text-based works, like instructions for experiencing specific places. Could you give me a sense of the intention behind those works?

LLF: I think it really relates to whose voice is heard and whose voice is not heard. Concrete poetry is not just about what the words mean, it’s about the way that they sit on the page. An utterance is not just what you say, it’s about how it resonates with the world around you. I’m really interested in the ways in which Nancy develops from her concrete poetry to her audio works, which she called “poems in place.” She’d go into the most experimental art spaces of her time and describe every single detail. She’d literally inject her voice into … spaces where her voice was not being heard. 

JE: And how did those bodies of work relate to her visual art?

LLF: What does language do? It situates us in a time and a place and a sensibility. I think what Nancy Holt is doing with her use of language is she’s showing the fluidity of facts, the fluidity of systems. She’s getting us to look with her eyes. Holt chose to say again and again that she was a perception artist, which is when an artist wants you to think about how you perceive the world around you.

Nancy Holt, “Dark Star Park” (1979–84), gunite concrete, stone masonry, asphalt, steel, water, earth, gravel, grass, plants, willow oak, overall area: two-thirds of an acre, Rosslyn, Arlington County, Virginia. The shadows cast by the spheres and the steel poles line up with the shadow patterns on the ground each year on August 1 at approximately 9:32 a.m., the anniversary of the day in 1860 when William Henry Ross acquired land that later became Rosslyn (© Holt/Smithson Foundation / Licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York)

JE: Lucy, you’ve written that Nancy “was never a Conceptual artist, per se.” Could you explain why?

LL: I have a very strict definition of conceptual, which most people don’t. It gets used on absolutely everything now. It seems like if there’s any idea involved it’s conceptual. But in those days I was thinking it was dematerialized conceptual art, and that’s why I didn’t think she was one. Conceptual is really about ideas, and perceptual is about seeing. But there’s a lot of back and forth; I don’t think there’s a strict line between the two. 

JE: A major endeavor of Nancy’s life was cultivating the legacy of her husband, Robert Smithson, who died in a plane crash in 1973 at 35. In the final days of her life, she spent hours editing a video about Smithson’s earthwork “Amarillo Ramp” (1973). What are your thoughts on how that project unfolded for Nancy?

LL: She was going to go on the flight with Smithson, and then she decided not to because she had to do something for her own work. I always find it ironic that that was why she didn’t go. When Smithson died she edited the first book of his writings, and she thought that was kind of it. And then of course, it just kept going and going and going.

JE: Lisa, has Nancy’s vision for Smithson’s legacy — or her own legacy — informed the direction of the Holt/Smithson Foundation?

LLF: I think she did look after his legacy, and the Smithson that we know is Nancy Holt’s Smithson. Our work is making sure this much more expansive sense of both artists is known. Holt didn’t leave instructions for what the foundation should be. The question that is not so useful to ask in our case would be, “Oh, what would Nancy want? What would Bob want?” No, it’s “What does the work of Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson need?” So the very first thing that we did when we started to think about this foundation is we said, what does legacy mean? And surely legacy means that an artist’s work is vibrating with the present. 

Nancy Holt, “Pipeline” (1986), steel, oil, overall Dimensions: 30 x 32 x 15 feet, Visual Arts Center of Alaska, Anchorage (© Holt/Smithson Foundation / Licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York)

JE: Lucy wrote of Nancy, “There are few bodies of public art that are simultaneously so cohesive and so varied.” What are some chapters of Nancy’s career that you think deserve closer examination?

LLF: From the early 1980s through to the mid 1990s, Nancy Holt made a number of works that she called “system works” that were [about] making visible the invisible, literal power structures within buildings. She talked about how the electricity lights, the ventilation makes the building breathe, the heating makes it warm. I think all of Nancy Holt’s work is about looking at systems. Her concrete poetry is about language, a system that fails again and again. When she made work like “Sun Tunnels,” she was interested in the systems of the planets, the sun, the moon. Then she started to look at the built environment. 

JE: Speaking of structures, do you think it’s important for contemporary audiences to understand Nancy’s struggle for recognition when considering her legacy?

LLF: It’s really important when telling stories of women that they’re not misery stories. Why isn’t there a sense of power and persistence? And yet it is really clear that Holt was struggling. She was present amongst the art world, and while she was having conversations, she wasn’t listened to. … I don’t know how artists do it, because it’s just banging your head against a wall again and again. No museum would acquire her work because they weren’t interested in women artists. The unfathomable thing is that she didn’t have a major monographic exhibition until 2010. She made her first artwork in 1966. 

LL: I don’t know what Nancy’s struggle was. I had her in a show with conceptual women artists, which was dematerialized stuff, in 1974. She had a real in through Bob to the art world. And I don’t think she struggled as much as a lot of women do. But certainly she did the only acknowledged female earthwork — other people did things, but she’s the only one that gets listed. 

JE: Lisa, how does the Holt/Smithson Foundation approach the challenge of bringing Nancy’s work, which was made across five decades, into the contemporary conversation?

LLF: We were really clear that we didn’t want to pickle this work, you know, to put it in vinegar so it’s exactly the same. It would become untouchable, and we’re not interested in that. If [Holt and Smithson] really addressed urgent questions that we’re addressing now, what was their approach to caring for the surface of the planet? What was their approach to the fact that in the United States we’re all standing on stolen lands? Did they address that? And if they didn’t, we need to address it now.

Nancy Holt, “Mirrors of Light II” (1974), 10 mirrors, diameter 9 1/2 in. (24.1 cm); 650 watt quartz light, installed at Walter Kelly Gallery, Chicago (© Holt/Smithson Foundation / Licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York)

Going with the Flow: Art, Actions, and Western Waters, curated by Lucy Lippard, opens at SITE Santa Fe on April 14. The group exhibition is a collaboration with SITE curator Brandee Caoba.

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