Nancy Holt was an American artist, known for her sculptures, installation art, and earthworks in remote areas. While she began her career as a photographer and video artist, she is mostly known for her large-scale environmental works. Her sculptures situated in the landscape function like cameras in that they are there not to be looked at but to be looked through. They frame vistas and celestial events.
In 1963, three years after graduating from Tufts University, she married Robert Smithson, a fellow environmental artist who died suddenly in 1973 at the age of 35. In 1974, Holt collaborated with Richard Serra as he videotaped her listening to her own voice echoing back into headphones. Her involvement with photography and optics served to influence her earthworks, which are “seeing devices . . . for tracking the positions of the sun, earth, and stars.”
Her 1973-1976 sculpture “Sun Tunnels” in northwest Utah’s Great Basin Desert, is a minimal arrangement of four cylinders, 18 feet long and 9 feet in diameter, made of cast concrete covert pipes. Holt worked with astronomers to position the cylinders along two lines of the winter and summer solstice in orientation to the constellations. Twice a year they align perfectly with the equinox and solstice. People can walk into them and see how sunshine projects tiny constellations, Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn, inside the tubes through perforations on the tops of each cylinder.
Her 1974 “Hydra’s Head” is an arrangement of concrete cylinders on the riverbank by the Niagara Falls, that correspond to the Constellation above. Concrete tubes were embedded in the earth. Their openness formed pools of still water from pumps, which took water from the river up into the tubes. The stillness of the circular pools contrasts with the raging Niagara River below.
In 1977-1978 she made “Rock Rings” from stone and masonry at Western Washington University. The rocks were hand-quarried from a mountain sixty-five miles northeast of the site and have been drilled for a viewer to look through concentric holes at the landscape. Her unfinished “Sky Mound” (1988) was an effort to transform a landfill in New Jersey’s Meadowlands into a public park.
She has made other earthworks in Ohio, California, and Virginia. Holt produced films and videos often in collaboration with other land artists such as her husband Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, and Michael Heizer.