The history of land art is generally seen as a story of white men in weathered denim descending onto what they saw as the empty canvas of the American West in the 1960s with bulldozers and big ideas to do their jobs. . But what about the women who are also making their mark? “Today, land art appears as an almost perfect distillation of the history of male privilege in the art world, with its conviction that man has the right to space to move, to make his mark. “, Wrote critic Megan O’Grady in 2018.” This is one of the contemporary art movements that most needs to be reconsidered.
An upcoming exhibition at Lismore Castle in County Waterford, focusing on the work of the late Nancy Holt, hopes to restore that balance. The Irish venue kicks off its post-lockdown programming with Light and Language, a group exhibition examining its heritage in contemporary art as a central member of land art and conceptual movements. This is a rare opportunity to see a large group of Holt’s works, many of which have not been exhibited in decades. There is a large-scale installation, several video and sound works, photography, drawing and a scattering of his “concrete poems”. Holt’s most recognizable piece is a fascinating earthwork titled Sun Tunnels – four cylindrical concrete shapes, large enough to walk through, set in the Utah desert.
Holt herself is however widely known as the wife of Robert Smithson, who is credited with founding the land art movement in the late 1960s and making her instant cover: Spiral Jetty, this giant coil of white rock s’ extending into the red waters of Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
Holt was also married to the Smithson inheritance. After her death in a plane crash in 1973 at the age of 35, she kept her archives – and ensured her lasting fame – until her death in 2014. That same year, and at her request, the Holt Smithson Foundation was created to look after the estates of the two artists. This show is part of this program.
“It’s that classic thing – that female artists were just invisible,” says foundation director Lisa Le Feuvre. “They were there, they were doing things and they weren’t seen.
Holt was born in Massachusetts in 1938. She graduated from Tufts University with a degree in biology, but it was moving to New York in the early 1960s and meeting artists, including Smithson, that really brought her to reflect. In 1966, she began to make her series of concrete poems, and the following year, as Le Feuvre said, “she brought language into the landscape”.
Stone Ruin Trail I is a kind of personalized walking tour of a forested ruin in New Jersey. Holt gave his friends a set of two hand-typed instruction pages with detailed photographs, noting things (a rope entrance, a metal beehive, a castle-like structure, a glacial rock) that had caught his attention. This approach – observational, methodical, inclusive – has been a constant throughout his career.
Lismore’s show includes a 1969 piece titled Trail Markers: a series of photographs of the spray-painted orange dots on rocks and logs to mark British hiking trails. She was fascinated when she saw them on Dartmoor. She described them as a ready-made work of art.
Holt was still serious. Her journals show how much other artists loved to talk about ideas with her. She was very close to Michael Heizer, Richard Serra and Joan Jonas. She exchanged concrete poetry by mail with Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt. But when I ask Feuvre if men saw her as a peer, she replied: “Yes, but. They appreciated his contribution. But she did not exhibit in the same places as them. Likewise, it’s not that critics have rejected his work. They just didn’t mention it at all.
Smithson’s recognition of his support is unmistakable. She shaped his writing (she was an assistant editor at Harper’s Magazine; he is believed to be dyslexic). Some say she also shaped his ideas. She traveled west to reconnoitre with him and if his earthworks were visible in the galleries of Manhattan, it was because of the films she made. “It’s Nancy’s time now,” he said in 1970. “My job is to help her.” You get the feeling that if his life hadn’t been cut short, he would have been cut too.
This sideline from Holt as a sub-editor is instructive. It’s a job that requires precision, curiosity and self-effacement at the same time. You are as invisible as you are precious and you handle the words and voices of others with great care. The same is true of Holt’s work. The big names of the movements with which she is associated – Heizer, De Maria, Smithson, James Turrell – are known for their impossibly large sculptural impositions on the territory that concern the artists themselves more than they probably admit. On the other hand, Holt was attentive to the intangibles, structures and systems that bind us together. at Earth.
Boomerang, showing at Lismore, is a video she shot with Richard Serra. You watch her speak for 10 minutes as she listens to what she says, which is sent back to her through the headphones. The shifts and slippages in understanding caused by this feedback delay seep into his improvised monologue, and while the technology – and its diction – reveals the age of the job, the experience is all too familiar. He talks about displacement and disconnection.
The centerpiece of the show is the 1982 installation, Electrical System. The first of his System Works is a fluid network of steel conduits connected to over 100 lit bulbs that fills a room. The goal, she said, was to outsource and expose the hidden networks (for water, ventilation, electricity) that link the built environment to the landscape. In 1986, it installed an oil-dripping steel pipe structure in a gallery in Anchorage just hours from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The latter had also leaked oil for years. “These works are all political,” she told an interviewer shortly before her death. “Our life on the inside is inextricably linked with life on the outside, with the entire planet, in fact.”
Sun Tunnels, Holt’s masterpiece, connects to much larger systems. Manufactured between 1973 and 1976, in the desert of the Great Basin in Utah, it comprises four concrete tubes on an endless plain of brush and dust. They are arranged in an X so as to frame the sun at the solstices. In between, they filter star and moon light through perforations that correspond to the changing constellations. In the heat of the desert producing mirages, everything almost disappears from a distance; up close it provides shelter. In 2018, it became the first earthwork by a woman to be purchased by the Dia Art Foundation – the custodians of other major works of the time.
Holt was a feminist, but resisted being associated with her feminist peers. She wanted recognition for her art, not for her politics. Invited to create temporary pieces for exhibitions, she would sculpt them so well that they would be impossible to dismantle. And then she refused to offer them to the institution. In an interview in 1978, he was asked if anyone could own the Sun Tunnels. Yes, she replied, and they should buy them. “She wouldn’t back down,” said Le Feuvre. Holt was making sure his voice was there to stay.