SFAI Remembers Nancy Holt

Nancy Holt at the exhibition opening of Sightlines at SFAI, May 2012. Photo: Dianne Stromberg

Groundbreaking and visionary American artist Nancy Holt died on February 8, 2014 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. She was 75 years old. Holt was a photographer, filmmaker, sculptor, writer, and artist whose work falls at the intersection of art, architecture and time-based media. She is best known for her innovative Sun Tunnels (1973-76), a land art installation in the Great Basin Desert in Utah.

Holt’s work was shown at SFAI in the exhibition Nancy Holt: Sightlines (May 5 – June 29, 2012), an in-depth examination of Holt’s early projects from 1966 to 1980, which traveled to Santa Fe from the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University. Click here to see Nancy Holt in conversation with curator Alena Williams during the community lecture she gave at SFAI as part of the Sightlines exhibition.

The career of this important American artist took off in the late 1960s when she and other like-minded artists in the U.S. turned away from the emerging commercial gallery system to embrace the American landscape and its geological diversity. Located beyond the confines of New York gallery walls, Holt began working on large-scale outdoor projects that responded to the environment and offered novel means for observing natural phenomena.

Although Holt’s work has regularly appeared in surveys and anthologies on the Land Art movement, many of her forays into film and video, landscape architecture, and environmental ecology have gone surprisingly unexamined. The Sightlines exhibition included some 40 works and archival documents and was curated by Alena J. Williams.

Nancy Holt was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1938 and grew up in New Jersey. Shortly after graduating from Tufts University in 1960 as a biology major, she moved to New York, where — alongside a group of colleagues and collaborators including Michael Heizer, Carl Andre, Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, and Robert Smithson — she began working in film, video, installation, and sound art. With her novel use of cylindrical forms, light, and techniques of reflection, Holt developed a unique aesthetic of perception, which enabled visitors to her sites to engage with the landscape in new and challenging ways.

Works like Sun Tunnels (1973–76), Views Through a Sand Dune (1972), and her extensive Locator series provided a new lens for observing natural phenomena (such as summer and winter solstices and sun and moonlight patterns), which transform specific geographic locations into vivid and resonant experiences. Her sculptural sites allow the viewer to channel the vastness of nature into human scale while creating a contemplative, subjective experience grounded in a specific location in real time.

Holt wrote in 1977 about her magnum opus, Sun Tunnels: “I wanted to bring the vast space of the desert back to human scale. I had no desire to make a megalithic monument. The panoramic view of the landscape is too overwhelming to take in without visual reference points . . . through the tunnels, parts of the landscape are framed and come into focus. . . the work encloses—surrounds. . .”

Sightlines exhibition at SFAI. Photo: Dianne Stromberg

The presentation of Sightlines at SFAI was made possible by generous funding from the Burnett Foundation, Kindle Project, Lannan Foundation, McCune Charitable Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Oppenheimer Brothers Foundation, City of Santa Fe Arts Commission and the 1% Loders’ Tax and the New and New Mexico Arts, a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Nancy Holt and Susan York at the exhibition opening of Sightlines at SFAI. Photo: Dianne Stromberg

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