Art

Nancy Holt Brilliantly Emerges from the Shadows

In 2018, she became the first female Land artist in the Dia Art Foundation’s collection, but it has taken decades for Holt to gain recognition. A new exhibition argues she was truly an artistic innovator.

Nancy Holt, “Holes of Light” (1973) (image courtesy Dia Art Foundation)

An oval spotlight shoots across the gallery’s brick wall from a slanted angle. I register its shape as I see what else stands before me: perpendicular to the floor, a tall, metal rod supports a welded tube that looks like a telescope. Peering through this cylindrical device, the quality of light cast upon the wall changes, intensifying until I can no longer distinguish surface from space. An optical trick. By focusing my eye on the spotlight’s image, artist Nancy Holt has shown me the sun.

Sometimes, the best art requires very little intervention by the artist; rather, she flips a switch in the viewer’s brain to create the world anew. That’s what Holt’s work exemplifies in a tightly curated exhibition honoring her light installations at Dia:Chelsea.

Installation view, as seen through one of Nancy Holt’s locators (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The same installation view as above, just seen without use of a locator (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Holt’s moment of recognition is long overdue. She is yet another woman artist whose career was overshadowed by a famous husband — Holt helped marshal her late-husband Robert Smithson’s career into the art historical canon after he died in a 1973 plane crash. And while the Dia Art Foundation has held her husband’s work in their collection for decades, Holt has only recently come into the fold. The cultural institution acquired one of her most famous works, “Sun Tunnels” (1973–76), earlier this year, making it the first piece of land art in the collection by a woman.

Before the artist’s first retrospective, organized by Columbia University in 2010, Holt’s presence in the gallery scene was virtually nil for 17 years. (Her previous solo exhibition was in 1993 at the now-shuttered John Weber Gallery, which was later purchased and renamed by James Cohan.) That does not mean that Holt had an inert career. She boasts an almost five-decade-long history of questioning the boundaries of art, architecture, and nature.

Installation view (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Unlike her Land Art peers, Holt did not create megalithic monuments of machismo. She was less concerned with upending Earth’s soil and terraforming the landscape; rather, she wanted to minimize the impact of her art on the environment. Holt therefore renders nature on a human scale. Her work is less interventionist than that of other artists like Smithson or even Andy Goldsworthy, as she prefers to simply frame natural phenomena. Just months before her death in 2014, Holt presented a keynote lecture at the Princeton University Art Museum in which she described her telescope-like works — which she called “locators” — as objects akin to cameras. Guiding the viewer’s eye to key information, these devices became artistically improvised lenses onto the world.

Curator Kelly Kivland has organized the Dia:Chelsea exhibition to consider Holt’s place within the constellation of modernists, minimalists, and conceptualists of her time. Toward the back of the gallery, two locator devices are caught between a small mirror and a large, black circle spray-painted onto a brick wall. This is phenomenology 101: the black circle is a reference to the mirror, but it cannot itself reflect; yet it looks toward the mirror through the intervening locators. The viewer steps into this exchange between mirror and circle, intruding into a philosophical standoff between painting and perspective.

Installation view (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Holt’s room-sized light installations require significantly less mental stamina to comprehend but are nonetheless fascinating. “Holes of Light” (1973) references the eight different phases of the moon, forming shadow crescents through the strategic alignment of a light source with holes in a wall. The room is split in half with a wall containing a diagonal line of circular cutouts. Alternating the light sources from one side to the other allows the light and shadows cast upon the wall to alternate as well. For Holt, this rapid exchange establishes light as the concretization of sight.

But this is more than an optical illusion. Speaking in a 1983 interview, Holt describes her work as functional: “Art needs to be a more necessary part of the world, of society,” she remarks. Holt’s work is more than a meditation on the fundamental building blocks of sight and space. She wants to create a new system for visualizing the world around us — one that is more holistic, a totality.

Nancy Holt continues at Dia:Chelsea (541 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 16. The exhibition was curated by Kelly Kivland.

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