Name: Nancy Holt
Born: Worcester, MA, 1938
Lived: Galisteo, NM, 1995-2013
Died: New York City, NY, 2014
Role: Conceptual installation artist, photographer, video artist
Known for: Sun Tunnels (1976)
Quote: “You are a small speck in this vast space.”
Nancy Holt is known for artworks that engage the celestial: stars and sunlight, orbiting bodies, and the earth’s rotation. But getting to know her work more thoroughly through Sightlines, a retrospective edited by Alena Williams in 2011 and still the only and most complete catalogue of her work, I was struck by an even larger—larger than the cosmos—ongoing interest in recreating systems of perception, construction, and occupying space. Holt was inspired by the constellations, yes, but she was also inspired by heating systems (Flow Ace Heating, 1985), ventilation (Ventilation Series, 1985-92), oil pipelines (Pipeline, 1986), drainage systems (Waterwork, 1983-84, and Catch Basin, 1982), and old textile manufacturing (Spinwinder, 1991). While many (male) conceptual land artists, regardless of their intentions, build (have been building for decades) what ultimately function as monuments (to themselves), Holt’s sculptures have an actual use: they are there to see through, to move through, to move water or heat or air or oil in a defined space. When her pieces do the work of commemoration, they commemorate not a person or idea but a relationship between viewers and their entire surroundings.
Holt’s obsession with systems took what was buried underground or in the walls or ceilings, the structures we are hardly aware of that make our built environments function, and brought them out into the world: galleries, lawns, gardens, public parks, campuses, and plots of land in the middle of very little. Several of her installations move between the inside of a gallery and the outside of the building. Her installation in Alaska, Pipeline, drew from the Trans-Alaska pipeline, recreating a looping oil pipeline above ground outside and then building it in a gallery space, where it dripped a pool of oil onto the gallery floor, a piece that might inspire artists trying to reckon with DAPL or the Trans-Pecos pipeline that threatens West Texas.
Holt moved to New Mexico in the mid-1990s, after talking with Galisteo residents Lucy Lippard and Harmony Hammond. After the three had set up homes and studios in Galisteo, they celebrated holidays together and called themselves the Galisteo Gals. From her home in Galisteo, where she lived following the death of her husband, Robert Smithson, Holt wrote a letter in protest of the lease of land adjacent to the Sun Tunnels for oil and gas development. “BLM has cavalierly ignored my astronomical artwork, ‘Sun Tunnels’ (1976) in deciding to offer this parcel for oil and gas lease,” she wrote. “Any development in the vast, flat, open space in this area would be seen for miles and would impact a visitor’s enjoyment of ‘Sun Tunnels.’” She went on to describe how the artwork brings people to an environment “they would not be likely to explore otherwise” and connects them to the “cyclical time of the universe as the earth rotates and the sun appears to rise and set. For this sense of awe of the universe to continue to inspire,” she insisted, “an unimpeded view to the horizon is absolutely necessary.” The protest letter was written up in early May, 2007, and when the plots went up for auction later that month, no one bid on them. While Holt was reluctant to join in any political group or to affiliate with a movement, she assumed an activist role as land use threatened her works. Site specificity called the artist to account for environmental threat.
“All Holt’s public works are tools for seeing. Viewers don’t look at them but through them to discover other realms.”
For this same reason, photographs of Holt’s work did not suffice in any way, for her, as a substitute for spending time in and near the works themselves. They offer documentation, but, as such, photos are partial. To experience her artwork, a person has to go to it, walk through it, under it, around it. One must apprehend it from many angles. Her works cannot be seen from a single perspective, not even from above or at a distance, when, as with Star-Crossed (1979-80) and Up and Under (1987-98), parts of the work are buried underground, or certain points in space allow tailored glimpses through pipes, tunnels, or interlocking circles. Visiting her work Time Span (1981) in Austin in February, my instinct was to put my face in the center of a circle of black metal spokes, and I think perhaps this was what she wanted—a visual portal. Or, in Lucy Lippard’s words, “All Holt’s public works are tools for seeing. Viewers don’t look at them but through them to discover other realms.” The challenge of Holt’s works is the same as it ever was: actually visiting them. Writing this, I realize that my new project, one of them, is to travel and see as many of Holt’s works as possible. Though she pitched a design for the Santa Fe Railyard in 2002, none of Nancy Holt’s works were installed in New Mexico.
Thanks to Lucy Lippard for the use of her Holt materials.