Over 50,000 documents connected to pioneering conceptual, moving image, and Land artist Nancy Holt were acquired by the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. Holt, who died in 2014, bequeathed the archive to the Smithsonian while entrusting the Santa Fe-based Holt/Smithson Foundation with her works of art.
Encompassing project files for realized and unrealized works, dream journals, correspondence, snapshots, interviews, grant proposals, financial records, and more, the wide-ranging documents shed invaluable light on Holt’s rich interior world as well as her external network. They will join the Smithsonian’s already substantial holdings regarding the artist, including the oft-consulted Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt papers, which Holt, who was married to Smithson and managed his estate, donated between 1986 and 2011.
For five decades, Holt made work ranging from concrete poetry to concrete installations, primarily devoting herself to the exploration of perception and sitedness. The newly acquired papers, which date from approximately 1960 to about 2001, feature documentation of major works by the artist, such as the film “Revolve” (1977) and site-specific installations “30 Below” (1979), “Catch Basin” (1982), “Sole Source” (1983), and “Up and Under” (1987-98).
Also included are plans for two site-specific projects that were never fully realized: “Sky Mound” (1984-), which would have transformed a New Jersey landfill into a sculptural observatory (only one design element, a pond, came to fruition), and “Solar Web” (1984-89), a massive web-like open sculpture sited at the Santa Monica Beach in California that was abandoned after local condominium owners complained about obstructed views. The Holt-Smithson Foundation aspires to complete these projects in the future, the Art Newspaper reported.
The archives are indicative of the specificity, rigor, and eye for detail that characterized Holt’s approach to artmaking, allowing her to create work that engaged with the rhythms of the surrounding landscape — and cosmos — to an intimate degree. Liza Kirwin, interim director of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, told Hyperallergic: “Holt was keenly attuned to one’s placement on the Earth (longitude and latitude), the passage of time, and the movement of the sun in relation to her work and her writings and notes reveal just how deliberate and perceptive she was about sightlines.”
Kirwin pointed to Holt’s notebook from 1976, which includes the artist’s exacting calculations of shadows cast from the Draco constellation in her “Sun Tunnels” (1973-76) in Utah’s remote Great Basin Desert. “Sun Tunnels,” Holt’s best-known site-specific artwork, is composed of four 18-foot-long concrete cylinders that perfectly frame the sun during the summer and winter solstices. Each cylinder is perforated with holes that correspond to stars in particular constellations — Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn — so that the cosmic clusters appear illuminated within the cylinders. A feat of tying time to place, “Sun Tunnels” spawned pages of calculations in the planning stage as the artist tracked the position of constellations and the sun’s rising and setting.
The archive also features Holt’s plans regarding her project “Dark Star Park”(1979-84), which is located on a small plot of land within a traffic intersection in Arlington, Virginia. An unusually urban example of Holt’s work, “Dark Star Park” features gunite spheres evoking dead stars and poles, which cast a particular play of shadows on the ground once a year on the day that William Henry Ross purchased the parcel of land that would go on to become Rosslyn, in Arlington’s northeastern county. The plans for this project include “pages of notes on the position of the vertical poles and their cast shadows, as well as specifics about the construction, lists of possible titles, draft letters, and people to call,” said Kirwin.
Jacob Proctor, Gilbert and Ann Kinney New York Collector of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, noted that the acquisition is a piece of the larger project of challenging Land Art’s reductive reputation as “a masculine arena populated by rugged men reshaping remote landscapes with heavy machinery,” which has stubbornly persisted despite new advances in scholarship. The archives acquired by the Smithsonian underscore Holt’s place as a pioneer in the Land Art movement, Proctor said, adding that her extensive project files “reveal the complex of research and organizational labor involved in realizing her works, while her writings, interviews, correspondence, and exacting practices of self-documentation demonstrate the ways in which Land Art was as much a discursive and media practice as a sculptural one.”