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Nancy Holt Photo

Nancy Holt

American Sculptor, Conceptual Artist, Photographer, and Filmmaker

Born: April 5, 1938 - Worcester, Massachusetts
Died: February 8, 2014 - New York, New York
"I feel that the need to look at the sky - at the moon and stars - is very basic, and it is inside all of us."
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Nancy Holt
"My art seemed to have a life of its own, which kept me transfixed"
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Nancy Holt
"My work involves me in the vast world that exists outside of the art world"
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Nancy Holt
"In my Land art dealing with astronomical phenomena, I am putting "centers of the universe" wherever I go, making my work uniquely site-specific"
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Nancy Holt
"I have a strong desire to make people conscious of the cyclical time of the universe"
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Nancy Holt
"[I wanted to examine] the human perception of time and space, earth and sky"
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Nancy Holt
"What I was doing over and over again was manifesting outwardly in physical form the universe as it is within. They interrelate - the outside world is a reflection of the inside world and vice versa"
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Nancy Holt
"Words and photographs of the work are memory traces, not art. At best, they are inducements for people to go and see the actual work."
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Nancy Holt
"Since each work sets up a perceptual structure, you're always perceiving your own sight and your own perception relative to the structure, so there is a perceptual relativity which is also very physical and related to the level of the eye."
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Nancy Holt

Summary of Nancy Holt

Nancy Holt fell in love with the American West, and embraced its vast, wide-open spaces as a kind of museum without walls. Her concrete and steel constructions helped free sculpture from the gallery context. These contemplative, often elegiac monuments to time and to the land, emphasize close observation. Free thinkers and art enthusiasts still travel for miles to observe the summer and winter solstice from inside her Sun Tunnels (1979), four colossal tubes that frame the rising and setting sun. While overshadowed by her celebrated husband, Robert Smithson, Holt produced a body of work distinct from his, and more forward-looking in its implications. In a leave-no-trace approach, some of Holt's best work is barely there. Earlier and more immediately than the other Land Artists, Holt saw the connection between art and eco-activism. Like light from a faraway star, some of Holt's ideas were so far ahead of their time that the art world has yet to fully acknowledge them.


  • Initially there was no alignment between Land art and environmentalism. Many early Land artworks actively damaged the land. Holt was one of the first artists to use outdoor art as a platform for environmental activism. She introduced ideas central to environmental protection, conservation, and stewardship that were not initially central to the art movement.
  • "I have a strong desire to make people conscious of the cyclical time of the universe," the artist once said. Time-based elements (human, geographic, or celestial) in her sculptures place us at the center of a participatory experience. The theme of recording time gives her work an effect that is immediate, and at the same time, eternal.
  • Her sculptural installations feature enclosures that frame our experience of nature. The act of framing, a recurring theme in Holt's work, functions as a metaphor for visual observation and is the genesis of many of her projects.
  • Holt's site-specific installations never seek to rival nature, but challenge us to look more closely at our environment. Hydra's Head, a configuration of small cylinders that might be mistaken for a drainage system, or Missoula Ranch Locators: Vision Encompassed, steel viewfinders distributed across an open field, are examples of her minimalist strategy that reinforces our connection with nature, attuning our senses to what is present around us.
  • While Smithson, Heizer, de Maria and others engaged in a contest to see who could make the largest mark on earth (almost as if it were a big canvas), Holt grasped the most radical implications of the Land Art movement. Integration - as opposed to competition - with the elements was her goal. While fully aware that this more subtle approach would not win her the immediate admiration of the art world, she explained, "I was emphasizing being over becoming. And in the art world it's a hard stance." In emphasizing Land over Art, Holt's remarkably visionary aim anticipated the future of the movement.
  • Although widely represented through photographs, which Holt described as "memory traces," the work was only complete, Holt insisted, through direct experience. This is especially evident in Sun Tunnels, her most famous work, where the changing conditions of weather and light transform the work from one moment to the next.

Biography of Nancy Holt

Nancy Holt Photo

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.

Important Art by Nancy Holt

Progression of Art

Concrete Visions

Heavily informed by Minimalism and Conceptual art, Holt's early photographs laid the foundation for her sculptural efforts. In the late 1960s, Holt photographed some of the sites where Smithson would obtain the industrial materials to make his work. While at first glance these photographs may appear straightforwardly documentary, they are in fact explorations of perception.

Concrete Visions, intended to be displayed as it is shown here, features four sequential shots of a concrete yard filled with building blocks. Clockwise from the upper left, Holt approaches the motif. Aligning her shots with the edges of the blocks, Holt sees frames within frames. By arranging her photographs in sequences, and often as a grid, Holt offered multiple perspectives that comprise the whole work of art, rejecting the one-point perspective, customary to traditional art and art photography. In the bottom two shots, her camera tilts to the right, giving the composition an unsteady look and reminding us that the artist is moving. The framing of space, the passage of time, the remote location, and the industrial materials featured in this early series are ideas that would reach their full fruition in Holt's site-specific installations.

Composite of four photographs reproduced from original 126 format black-and-white negatives - Collection of the artist


Western Graveyards

Here as in Concrete Visions (1967), frames within frames call attention to the act of selection. On her first trip out West in 1968 with Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, the excitement of this new environment was so overpowering that Holt could not sleep for days. The small graves she photographed in Virginia City, Nevada, and Lone Pine, California were of particular interest to her. She later recalled that she was drawn to the graves because they captured "how people thought about space out West; their last desire was to delineate a little plot of their own because there was so much vastness." Delineating the grave and preserving it as a work of art, Holt's camera performs a similar action in her series, Western Graveyards, which includes the two works shown here. These earth-bound rectangles were part of the inspiration for Holt's approach to Land Art as a series of enclosures in the earth. Mimicking Minimalist sculpture (and perhaps specifically the work of Carl Andre), Western Graveyards turns graves into sculptures. Imagine these as gallery installation shots, with the sky standing in for the ceiling and the earth as the floor.

60 photographs reproduced from original 126 format color transparencies - Collection of the artist


Missoula Ranch Locators: Vision Encompassed

Missoula Ranch Locators: Vision Encompassed was an interactive sculptural installation designed to restrict the viewer's experience of a vast, open space. Commissioned in 1971 and begun in Holt's New York studio, the work was comprised of eight viewfinders ranging from one and one-half to two inches in diameter and distributed across a wide field in Missoula, Montana. Each viewfinder (Holt referred to it as a "locator") was made of two steel pipes welded together in a t-formation, and positioned at eye level so the viewer could look through the upper pipe. Set in compass directions aligned with the North Star, the locators limited the view so that each individual stationed at the locator could only see what was inside a tiny circle of faraway land. In doing so, Holt forces the viewer to focus on specific objects, phenomena, or views, including those of other locators around them. Unable to gauge the distance between oneself and the distant view made viewers feel more connected to each other and the land.

Three years later, the work was dismantled by a subsequent owner of the land. In 2012, Holt recreated the project on the campus of the University of Avignon in France, where it is now a permanent installation.

Steel - Dismantled


Hydra's Head

Hydra's Head is one of a number of important, large-scale commissions that enabled Holt to explore ideas that transcend the boundaries of sculpture, architecture, installation, and land art. Inspired by the history of the region, Hydra's Head is essentially a monument to the native inhabitants of the region and a connection with nature that has been lost. According to the original inhabitants of Lewiston, New York (the Seneca Indians) "pools of water are the eyes of the earth." Inspired by this saying, this site-specific work set along the Niagara River in Lewiston is comprised of six sunken cylinders holding water. Arranged in the same configuration as the constellation, Hydra, the mythical water serpent, each pool is a tiny mirror for a single star. At night, the pools reflect the stars above, as if the sky has fallen at one's feet.

Concrete, water, earth - Along the Niagara River, Lewiston, NY

Sun Tunnels (1976)

Sun Tunnels

Holt collaborated with engineers, astronomers, pipe manufacturers, and many other professionals to complete her most ambitious and famous work, Sun Tunnels. Sometimes called the "American Stonehenge," this Minimalist-inspired suite of four concrete pipes forms a cross with an open center. Each pipe points in one of the four cardinal directions. Measuring 9 feet high by 18 feet long, each axis aligns perfectly with the sunrise and sunset of the winter and summer solstices, when the sun appears centered within the tunnels.

In addition, each tube is perforated with holes in the shape of a specific constellation: Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn. During the day, sunlight streams through the holes and projects the constellations inside the tunnels, connecting earth and sky.

Holt purchased the land in 1973 in a remote valley in the Great Basin Desert in northwest Utah: "I had the sense that I was perhaps walking on a piece of land that nobody had ever walked on before - the natives who lived there hundreds of years ago, I'm sure they didn't step on every piece of my 40 acres - and that was thrilling to me" she later remembered.

With nothing around for miles (not even service facilities), one approaches the work by car, and then on foot. The awe-inspiring pilgrimage is part of the work itself. Holt's aim for the work, as she put it, was to "bring the vast space of the desert back down to human scale," and indicate the "cyclical time" of the solar year. Although there is no substitute for the direct experience, visitors' descriptions convey a feeling of being at the center of the universe. The tunnels "emanate brute power" said one recent guest. "There, in the middle of nowhere, a person suddenly is placed in the middle of everywhere," said another.

Sun Tunnels made Holt one of few women artists to gain recognition amid the male-dominated Land Art scene of the 1970s.

Concrete, steel, earth - Great Basin Desert, Utah

Dark Star Park (1984)

Dark Star Park

The experience of Dark Star Park is one of contrast. Unlike the remote settings, in which most of Holt's works are situated, it is surrounded by straight roads and rectilinear buildings at the heart of the busy commercial center in Rosslyn, Virginia (just outside Washington, D.C.). Five large concrete spheres placed at intervals resemble fallen stars that no longer shine - hence the park's name. Four black metal poles, asphalt impressions on the ground, two reflecting pools, a stairway, and two concrete tunnels (one is large enough to pass through; the other is for viewing only) comprise the work.

Commissioned by Arlington County in 1979 and completed in 1984, Dark Star Park alters one's perception of the urban environment for those who experience it. Holt's switchback pathway snaking through spheres disobeys the conventional wisdom that the shortest (and, implicitly best) distance between two points is a straight line. This slow route through the park forces urban life to slow down. In the words of the art critic Lucy Lippard, the experience is one of "intimacy with vastness, a sense of one's individual place, at this very moment, in the universe."

While displaying none of the signs (figures on horseback, obelisks, etc.), or even a title that would identify it as such, Dark Star Park is a historical monument. It commemorates an important date in Arlington's history. On August 1, 1860, William Ross bought the land that today is Rosslyn. Every year on August 1, at 9:32 a.m., the shadows cast by the poles align, and two of the spheres cast shadows that fall precisely within the lines of the asphalt impressions beside them, commemorating that date (August 1, 1860), as Holt described it, "merging historical time with the cyclical time of the sun". Dark Star Park was not only a breakthrough in Holt's career, enabling her to work as a sculptor and landscape designer, but also advanced the then nascent field of public art and its impact on the transformation of cities. It was also a breakthrough for women, emboldening others, like Maya Lin, to enter the field of public art.

Gunited concrete, stone masonry, asphalt, steel, water, earth, gravel, grass, plants, willow oak - Rosslyn, Arlington County, Virginia



In the 1980s, environmental concerns entered directly into Holt's work. Pipeline is one of the earliest examples of this. While completing a residency in Anchorage, the artist was struck by the abundance of pipelines running through Alaska, known to cause environmental harm when oil leaks out through small holes caused by corrosion. Pipeline, made from the same industrial stuff as the real Alaskan pipeline, originated outside the gallery and snaked along the inside wall (shown here), where it leaked oil onto the pristine floor. Making its point in stark visual terms, it also engages the theme of enclosure, a leitmotif in Holt's earlier work. In employing materials one might more readily find in a basement or control room, raising the question "is it or isn't it" (art), Pipeline reflects Holt's longstanding engagement with Conceptual art. As a hybrid indoor/outdoor sculpture, it aligns Holt with other Land Artists who wished to call attention to the gallery setting as an artificial and limiting environment for art.

Steel duct and oil - Visual Arts Center of Alaska, Anchorage

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Content compiled and written by Catarina Flaksman

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein

"Nancy Holt Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Catarina Flaksman
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein
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First published on 27 Feb 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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