Nancy Holt: Locators
Nancy Holt (1938-2014) was a member of the earth, land, and conceptual art movements. A pioneer of site-specific installation and the moving image, Holt recalibrated the limits of art. She expanded the places where art could be found and embraced the new media of her time. Across five decades she asked questions about how we might understand our place in the world, investigating perception, systems, and place. Holt’s rich artistic output spanned concrete poetry, audioworks, film and video, photography, slideworks, ephemeral gestures, drawings, room-sized installations, earthworks, artists’ books, and public sculpture commissions.
Born in Worcester in Massachusetts, Holt grew up in New Jersey. She graduated with a degree in biology from Tufts University, Massachusetts in 1960. Later that year she moved to New York City. In the mid 1960s she worked as an assistant literary editor at the magazine ‘Harper’s Bazaar’, and in 1966 began creating concrete poems and text-based works of art. The first group presentation of her concrete poems was ‘Language III’ at Dwan Gallery, New York in 1969, with the first solo in 1972 at l0 Bleecker Street. For the next forty years her work would continue to explore language and systems of perception.
Photography was an essential medium for Holt; it enabled “vision to be fixed” and visual perception to be focused. Her early photoworks Trail Markers (1969) and California Sun Signs (1972) used seriality to create visual poems. Photography led Holt to create “seeing devices” to draw attention to visual perception and place with her Locators. Comprising T-shaped industrial piping to be looked through with one eye, the Locators first focused on views in and from her studio, expanding into the landscape with Missoula Ranch Locators: Vision Encompassed (1972). In turn, the Locators led to her landmark earthwork Sun Tunnels (1973-76), located in the Great Basin Desert, Utah.
Holt was equally interested in the built environment as she was natural and celestial landscapes. Whether emanating from the stars or plugged into electricity grids, the perceptual qualities of light fascinated her. Sun Tunnels comprises four large concrete tunnels aligned to frame the sun on the summer or winter solstices. Perforations on each form the constellations of Draco, Perseus, Columba and Capricorn, bringing the starts down to earth through their reflected light and shadow. In contrast, Electrical System (1982) is a room-sized installation formed of a network of arching conduit holding more than seventy light bulbs. Directly connected to the building’s electricity system these expose electricity as a “vast hidden systems, they are part of open-ended systems, part of the world.”
These investigations of light and systems continued at a larger scale in Holt’s later outdoor sculptures. Commissioners included Western Washington University (Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings, 1977-84), the 1980 Winter Olympics (30 Below, 1979), the New York Subway (Astral Grating, 1986), and Arlington Public Art (Dark Star Park, 1979-84). Many, but not all, of Holt’s sculptural ideas were realized, and she used drawing as a medium to think through and articulate her sculptural thinking. Her works on paper range from careful detailing to mathematical calculations and full renderings.
Holt’s work is held in major collections including Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum für Gegenswartkunst, Germany; Utah Museum of Fine Arts; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. In 2018 Sun Tunnels and Holes of Light were acquired by Dia Art Foundation, with support from Holt/Smithson Foundation. Works by Holt are permanently installed at public institutions including Miami University Art Museum; University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth; Western Washington University; and University of South Florida.
Full Biography (PDF)
Nancy Holt at Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor National Park, UK, 1969
Photograph: Robert Smithson © Holt/Smithson Foundation, Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Nancy Holt (April 5, 1938 – February 8, 2014) grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Tufts University, where she majored in biology. In 1963 she married Robert Smithson (1938–1973). Holt is known for her earthworks, public sculpture and installation work. Best known for her large-scale environmental works Sun Tunnels (1973–76, Great Basin Desert, Utah) and Dark Star Park (1970–84, Arlington County, Virginia) her public sculptures are permanently installed in locations across Europe and North America. In 2018 Sun Tunnels was acquired by Dia Art Foundation, with the support of Holt/Smithson Foundation.
This year Holt’s work is the focus of ‘Light and Language’ at Lismore Castle Arts, bringing five decades of her work in conversation with five artists working today. In 2022 Holt is the subject of a major survey, ‘Nancy Holt: Inside/Outside’, at Bildmuseet, Sweden. The museums at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth and Western Washington University are presenting solo exhibitions in 2021 and 2022 respectively. In 2010-12 the retrospective exhibition Nancy Holt: Sightlines’ travelled from Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, New York to venues in Karlsruhe, Boston, Chicago, Santa Fe, and Salt Lake City, accompanied by a monograph by Alena J Williams (University of California Press). Other notable recent exhibitions include Parafin, London (2020 and 2015); Dia Art Foundation, New York (2018); ‘Nancy Holt: Land Art’, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (2013); ‘Nancy Holt: Selected Film and Photo Works’, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver (2013); and ‘Nancy Holt: Photoworks’, Haunch of Venison, London (2012). Her work has been included in major survey exhibitions including ‘Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974’ at Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Haus der Kunst, Munich (2012-13), and ‘Light Show’ at Hayward Gallery, London (2013).
In 2012 Nancy Holt was made a Chevalier of the of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government. In 2013 she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Sculpture Center in New York. Holt received five National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, two New York Creative Artist Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of South Florida, Tampa.