Women in Art: Nancy Holt

April 10 2017

Nancy Holt’s photography of her seminal land work Sun Tunnels (1973-6) is part of the UMFA’s permanent collection. In anticipation for the all-female exhibition in the UMFA’s Contemporary and Modern gallery when it reopens on August 26, 2017, The Finer Points will be highlighting female artists from the UMFA’s collection, the state of Utah, and the University of Utah.

Writen by guest writer and MFA Student Allison Pinegar.

Best known for her work Sun Tunnels in the Great Basin region, Nancy Holt is one of the few women to break through the male-dominated land art movement in the 1960s and ‘70s. Growing up in Massachusetts, Holt attended Tufts University and studied biology. Afterwards, she made her way to New York where she began collaborating and working with other young artists like Carl Andre, Eva Hesse, Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, her future husband. Before her interest in land art, Holt experimented with photography and video. She continued to work with these mediums to document her large sculptures throughout her career.

Cylinders, concrete, minimalist forms, light and shadow, and cyclical time are all common elements incorporated in Holt’s works. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Holt was not concerned with creating the largest land monuments, but rather focused on bringing the expansive desert landscape down to human scale. Sun Tunnels in western Utah is made of four large, concrete pipes arranged in a loose X-form. The tunnels are aligned with the sunset and sunrise of summer and winter solstice. Small holes drilled in the top of each tunnel correspond with specific constellations (Draco, Perseus, Columba and Capricorn). These small holes and the tunnels in general, act as a kind of camera or as view-finders that help visitors manage the extreme vastness of the desert landscape, by allowing the viewer to focus in on single elements. The holes also project the sky onto the ground, inverting the earth-sky relationship. Holt provides new aesthetic perspectives that encourage viewers to engage with their surroundings.

Holt was one of the first in the land-art movement to connect her work with eco-activism. She used her works as a platform to discuss conservation, environmental protection and stewardship. Holt’s work never competes with the landscape, but tries to start a dialogue between the viewer and the environment. Holt’s lack of interest in creating monumental land art pieces initially made it difficult for her to gain prominence in the art world, especially when competing with artists like Smithson and Richard Serra. At a public lecture in 2010 Holt stated, “I was just being. I was emphasizing being over becoming. And in the art world it’s a hard stance.”

For more information about Nancy Holt and visiting Sun Tunnels visit here.