All of my work is involved with site, time, inside vs. outside space, orientation in space (often in some way astronomically designated), and aspects of perceptions —light, space, framing, focus.
Since 1969 my primary concern has been in making sculpture in the landscape or in open urban spaces—using stone, concrete, brick, and steel. Although sometimes indoor spaces—entire rooms—are used as sites, the sites, both in and outdoors, are an integral part of the sculptures—the ideas for the works developing out of my involvement with the sites.
My films, videotapes, and book, also conceived of in a perceptual framework, are usually evocations of landscapes or displacements of places. Indications of space (through tracking, pans, aerial, and walking shots) and aspects of nature—sunlight patterns, billowing dust, water reflections—are caught visually and transported elsewhere via film through time, while the psychology of the place is disclosed through the local voices, sounds, and/or music in the sound tracks, or accompanying text.
Artist's statement for Video Data Bank, 1988
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 her husband, 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.
Holt used video for the first time in 1969, and was fascinated by the immediacy. "There was a tremendous sense of discovery because it was so accessible and so Bob [Smithson] and I immediately did a work of art (. . . ). It was very unusual to discover a medium, make a work of art and show it in the same day. That broke the ice and gave me a sense of what it was about—what were film ideas and what were video ideas."
In the 1970s, she made a series of pioneering film and video works, including several collaborations with Robert Smithson. Her early videos, which are among the most iconic works in the medium, explore perception and memory through experiments with point of view and process; and twist the technical limits of video, calling attention to the medium's artificial nature and maintaining a critical distance between public presentation and private reality.
Holt’s early involvement with photography played a role in later works, which she described as “seeing devices, fixed points for tracking the positions of the sun, earth and stars.” These works, that she referred to as Locators, created possibilities for intimate connections to nature, in particular the stars. Holt explained, “I feel that the need to look at the sky—at the moon and the stars—is very basic, and it is inside all of us. So when I say my work is an exteriorization of my own inner reality, I mean I am giving back to people through art what they already have in them.”
A pioneer of earthworks and public art, her large-scale environmental sculptural works, including Sun Tunnels (1973-76) and Views Through a Sand Dune (1972), provided a new lens for observing natural phenomena, 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 about her Sun Tunnels, located in the Great Basin Desert of Utah:
“l 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 (. . .)”
Nancy Holt (1938-2014) and Robert Smithson (1938-73) developed innovative ways of exploring our relationship with the planet, expanding the limits of artistic practice. For the first time in Spain, Punto de Vista is dedicating this retrospective to the film production of Nancy Holt. This is in line with the curatorial focus of the last few years, seeking to make wider audiences aware of the work of artists who are recognized in other disciplines and yet who have also worked on films, such as Marcia Hafif or Gordon Matta-Clark. In this series of four programmes, we have gathered together films by Nancy Holt and also some titles by colleagues such as Joan Jonas, Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark in a season on synchronicity, space, simplicity, perception and love of nature.
Season curated by Garbiñe Ortega
* Quotes from The Holt/Smithson Foundation and Video Data Bank