Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Nancy Holt (April 5, 1938 – February 8, 2014) grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Tufts University, where she majored in biology. In 1963 she married Robert Smithson (1938-1973).
Holt is an artist known for her earthworks, public sculpture, and installation work. Her large-scale environmental works Sun Tunnels (1973–76, Great Basin Desert, Utah) and Dark Star Park (1970–84, Arlington County, Virginia) are her most discussed outdoor site-specific sculptures, while other sculptures are permanently installed in locations across Europe and North America. In 2018 Sun Tunnels was acquired by Dia Art Foundation, with the support of Holt/Smithson Foundation.
Holt’s oeuvre ranges from permanent works to ephemeral gestures: she made films, videos, photography, audio works, concrete poetry, and artists’ books. An analytical thinker, Holt began her early work in concrete poetry in 1966 and engaged in conceptual art practices during the mid-seventies. She participated in landmark exhibitions, such as Language III at the Dwan Gallery in New York (1969) and c. 7,500 at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia (1973-74, traveling exhibition curated by Lucy Lippard). Holt made a number of tours and audio works, including Tour of the John Weber Gallery (1972) and the Visual Sound Zones series (1972-79): looped recordings describing in detail phenomena in a given space that are played back on loudspeakers. In 1971 she began Buried Poems, where she wrote poems for friends and buried them in disparate locations in Florida, Utah, and New Jersey. In the 1980s Holt created the influential artist book Ransacked: Aunt Ethel: An Ending (1980, Printed Matter in association with Lapp Princess Press, New York) and Time Outs (1985, Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester).
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.”
During the 1980s and early ‘90s Holt’s interests turned to site-specific works in a series of Systems Works: functional sculptural installations using standard industrial materials for heating, ventilation, lighting, and drainage. She explained, "[My] sculptures are exposed fragments of vast hidden networks. They are part of open-ended systems, part of the world."
In the last decade of her life, Holt was involved in both creating new works and revisiting her archive to excavate her consistent exploration of perceptual processes. Her groundbreaking artworks continue to have a powerful impact on the development of a broad spectrum of art across the world.
In 2010-12 the retrospective exhibition Nancy Holt: Sightlines (curated by Alena J. Williams) traveled from the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University to Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe, Tufts University Art Gallery in Boston, the Graham Foundation in Chicago, Santa Fe Arts Institute, and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City. In 2013 Holt was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Sculpture Center in New York. In 2018-19 Dia Art Foundation dedicated an exhibition to Holt’s early room-sized installations at Dia:Chelsea.
Works by Holt are permanently installed at public institutions, including: Miami University Art Museum; University of Massachusetts; Western Washington University; and University of South Florida. Holt’s work is held in major public collections, including: Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art; Utah Museum of Fine Arts; and Museum für Gegenswartkunst.
I wanted to bring the vast space of the desert back to human scale.
Nancy Holt in Sun Tunnels, 1977
Published in Artforum, April 1977