By Angella d’Avignon
April 9, 2021
In 2019, when Dia:Chelsea in New York held an exhibition of work by Land Artist Nancy Holt, writer Angella d’Avignon contributed to Degree Critical a poignant reconsideration of the artist’s career. In her essay, d’Avignon astutely connects Holt not only with the land—the dusty, gritty expanse of the American West—but also with the ethereal cosmos. Many of Holt’s works, though grounded on the earth, have always encouraged viewers to gaze upwards in rumination of the sky. “Wrangling the vastness,” d’Avignon writes, “into one manageable frame is an act of empathy.” Whether considering wide, open plains or a range of celestial bodies, Holt encouraged those who engaged with her work to reflect upon themselves as another, intrinsic element of the ceaseless universe—and she graced them with the tools to better do so. In the poetic text that follows, d’Avignon likewise articulates this grace.
—Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Holt made artwork for the earthbound. She took the cosmic and made it intimate, touchable and seeable to the naked eye. What if the sun were the beam of a flashlight? What if the moon was just a series of shadows cast onto a wall? Recently, four of Holt’s installations, Holes of Light (1973), Mirrors of Light I (1974), Dual Locators (1972) and Locator with Spotlight and Sunlight (1972) filled the cavernous space of Dia:Chelsea with spare and precise light.
Holt brought the sun inside. Mirrors of Light I features seven circular mirrors hung on the wall in a low-ceilinged white room, descending from left to right. If you look at a time-lapse photograph of the sun, the orbs make a clean line that cuts against the horizon. The sun moves in perfect increments, angled upwards like an escalator, as though the hand of a titan spread a deck of cards across the milk-blue table of the sky. The flat orbit of this theoretical sun in Mirrors of Light I is dependent on your position in the room, how tall you are, which direction you face. You are the needle of the compass. Only one mirror takes the full flare of light at a time, leaving the rest to reflect an empty room with you in it, a glowing and watery silhouette. To see the light bouncing off the mirror and into the room is to also see your reflection in multiples, to catch a glimpse of your own flushed cheeks or a stray wisp of your hair. You are some other planet on a celestial circuit of your own.
Holes of Light also consists of a series of mirrors, arranged in a pattern similar to the one governing Mirrors of Light I, but with the additional feature of a bisecting wall with circular perforations cut from it, which match the arrangement of them. Lights on alternating walls turn on and off with timers. As the light shifts from one room to another, the circular holes become blinding portals, bright and small suns that throw shadows on the wall behind you. At Dia, if you stood on the east side of the space, the light shone through the holes and threw crescent-shaped shadows through the circles. If you were to wander to the westward, the same event occurred but in reverse. You orbited a damp warehouse made of metal, a cosmos of artificial radiance waiting for the lights to change. The jarring flip of a cosmic switch.
The completion of Western Graveyards (1968), a series of Polaroid photographs of frontier gravesites she took during her first trip to the American West acted as notes for larger and eventual projects. “The feeling of timelessness is overwhelming,” Holt wrote after this first journey in 1968, a profound experience that left her sleepless for four days. She felt the spaciousness of the desert was inside her. “I was experiencing it on the outside, simultaneously with my spaciousness within,” she said. “I felt at one.” In her Polaroids, the landscape is dusty and sunbleached, the wooden grave markers dilapidated—the smallest delineated plots accentuate the immensity of the desolate frontier. One small plot of land for one small soul under one big sky. Her projected light experiments began in early the 1970s, following this experience.
In a way, Holt’s insistence on wrangling the vastness of the universe into one manageable frame is an act of empathy. She said she wanted to “bring the vast space of the desert back down to human scale.” She used the circle as a viewing device in most of her work. When peering into one of Holt’s three Locators in Dual Locators and Locators with Spotlight and Sunlight at Dia, which are T-shaped metal pipes one aims toward a mirror, you again found your own reflection—yourself made small and circular, the apple of the periscope’s eye. Art critic Lucy Lippard wrote, “All Holt’s public works are tools for seeing. Viewers don’t look at them but through them to discover other realms.” The second Locator pointed to a darkened black matte circle painted on the wall—sensory deprivation, nothingness—and the last was aimed at a low window opened to the sidewalk: the city, not reduced, but excerpted to a single pair of feet shuffling down West 21st Street.
After visiting the desert, Holt cut holes into sheets of paper and taped them to her apartment window in New York and observed how the light cast circles onto her floor and walls. She climbed up to the roof and aimed metal poles at the sky. These were prototypes for her bigger installations, the textural city versions of what would eventually become her Land Art works.
Later in 1972, Holt returned to the West, scouting for desert land to build Sun Tunnels (1973), her most well-known work. She camped alone until she felt a sense that she was “linked through thousands of years of human time.” Out there, she said, a “‘lifetime’ seems very minute.” Holt imagined that anyone who lived or walked that land before her would have seen the same sun “rising and settling over the same mountains and ridges.”
In the narrative of the Land Art movement of the late 1960s and early 70s, Holt was not only continuously present but one of the community’s mainstays, though history has unfairly viewed her as a hanger-on while her husband Robert Smithson and others, all men, pioneered a new way of art making outside the gallery system. Her position wasn’t, as conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner insists, because of gender. As Weiner comments in the documentary Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, “Nancy wasn’t functioning that well at that time as a fellow artist. It had to do with her choice of her role. But it wasn’t about gender, and it wasn’t about living with Bob, it was where she saw herself as herself.” Still, it wasn’t until after Smithson died in an airplane accident while surveying land for his final project in 1973 that Holt’s career took off.
She had first moved to New York in 1963, after graduating from Tufts University. Living on the Lower East Side, she met Smithson and fell in love with cinema, calling the hours spent in the dark at the Bleeker Street Cinema (in operation from 1963 to 1990) “a total education.” Collaboration with other artists (including Smithson) put Holt near the center of a burgeoning movement of conceptualism as disenchantment blew through the art crowd in New York City, a smaller feeling of a much larger idea that would sweep through America during the height of the conflict in Vietnam.
The mythologies of the American West and of Land artists became synonymous during the late 1960s and well into the 1970s. Disillusioned by the New York art world and by an inflationary market that was beginning to call the shots for what was and wasn’t viable artwork, artists like Smithson, Heizer, and Walter de Maria turned away from the gallery system to make sprawling and unsalable artwork in the expanses of the desert. Picture American artists in cowboy hats shuffling into European art galleries and filling them with dirt they collected from far-flung places. While the men took to the land, Holt hung back, and turned her face to the sky. In comparison to her masculine contemporaries, Holt was more tender and considerate. She plumbed aperture between the grandiosity of the desert and the smallness of a human body in comparison; how both were made of dirt, drenched by sun and eventually blown away by wind. In comparison to her contemporaries, her investigations were lexical and poetic, private and considered while her friends strode boldly across swaths of “unclaimed” land; each an examination of earth and sky and the human body in between trying to measure the distance.
Much of the discourse around women’s work and art insists that the most phenomenal part about it is that it’s made by women. “It was painful, because I had no product,” Holt said. “And especially a woman in the art world at that time, you had to have something to show […] I was just being. I was emphasizing being over becoming. And in the art world it’s a hard stance.” Sun Tunnels, officially, is the first known earthwork made by a woman to be recognized as such.
Holt made several films, the last of which was The Making of Amarillo Ramp (1974), and which also documented the last work Smithson made, or attempted to make. Artists Richard Serra, Tony Shafrazi, and of course, Holt, finished Amarillo Ramp to Smithson’s specifications months after his death in 1973. The film starts with photos of four friends scouting for land: Smithson, his patron Stanley Marsh, Shafrazi, and Holt. It snaps through frames like a memorial slideshow. She stands in the background in many of the shots: Holt in a denim jumpsuit, Holt in profile with dirty hair, Holt standing with a knee cocked atop a boulder, surveying “Native American Ruins” with the boys. At six minutes or so, the footage changes: we see breathing, moving nature, flowing water, and grass undulating in the breeze. Then, machines fill the screen, their metal claws ripping into dirt. The vantage point shifts and we know Holt is behind the camera now, showing us what she sees. A field of cows and a dump truck pouring red rock back onto itself, a shot of Shafrazi and Serra, knee deep in dirtied artificial lake water. Finally we see what it looks like to move along Amarillo Ramp. Holt films from the back of the caterpillar, bouncing along the road as it twists around the ramp.
The film’s ability to convey a shift in volume as the sky builds itself around the rocks and dirt of the ramp showcases Holt’s precise attention to scale as much as it does Smithson’s plans. Each scene is a click on a dial that turns slowly with time; every shot frames the landscape’s expanse as a type of loss. Cameo-like portraits present each person on site: here are the people who made Amarillo Ramp. Here’s Tony with his hands on his hips, covered in dust; here’s the toothless contractor in his reflective sunglasses; here’s Richard taking a picture of Holt in the wind before he cross-dissolves into the Texan horizon. Where Smithson took center stage in the first third of the film, he’s noticeably absent in the remainder. After Amarillo Ramp, Holt got to work on Sun Tunnels, a series of “four massive concrete tunnels which are arranged in an “X” configuration. Each tunnel reacts to the sun differently, aligned with the sunrise, sunset, of the summer or winter solstice.” The tunnels offer respite from the blazing sun; their formation acts as the arms of a compass. A quadrant of transposition from earth to elsewhere. Drilled through with holes, the tunnels create points of light when the sun beams through that correspond to constellations as they are in the sky at that moment. It allows visitors to walk on the stars.
As Virginia Dwan put it, Holt’s “earth time” ended when she was 75, on February 8th of 2014. The constellations of Orion, with his Greater and Lesser guard dogs, were especially bright and clear that winter. Astronomical twilight set at 6:55PM the day of her death, and the moon was waxing gibbous. The spring equinox was only a month away. It was never that Holt stood in the background or in the shadows; she never stepped out of frame. It wasn’t because of gender and it wasn’t because of Smithson. On her own and quietly, she built rooms and chambers full of light, perfectly timed—crafted spaces full of presence and being. In winter at Dia:Chelsea, Holt’s work, the mirrors and spotlights and “suns” showed sensitive consideration of light. The gallery felt warm, intermittently flooded with light against the darkness and cold of the winter months. Holt’s was a human attempt to wrangle the cosmos, to stand in vast spaces and to gesture—not to absence or entropy or even to destruction, but to how wild it felt to be so small under the cosmic sky, to orbit an exact path while floating through the free range of space. How poignant to be made from the same dust as all those glittering, dying stars.
Nancy Holt ran from September 15, 2018–March 9, 2019 at Dia:Chelsea.
 Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art. Directed by James Crump, First Run Features, 2016. Kanopy. Nypl.kanopy.com/video/troublemakers.
 Holt, Nancy. The Making of Amarillo Ramp. 35mm. 1974. Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/112025409
 Sun Tunnels, Center for Land Use Interpretation.
 Dwan, Virginia. “Virginia Dwan on Nancy Holt.” Virginia Dwan on Nancy Holt – Artforum International. May 01, 2014. https://www.artforum.com/print/201405/nancy-holt-46308.
 Old Farmer’s Almanac. “Sky Watch: February 2014.” Old Farmer’s Almanac. Accessed April 25, 2019. https://www.almanac.com/content/sky-watch-february-2014#.
Angella d’Avignon is a writer based in California and New York focusing on art, culture, and land use.