Nancy Holt, installation view of Holes of Light, 1973/2018. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, © Holt/Smithson Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York

Nancy Holt

New York


Describing Nancy Holt’s 1968 photographic series of Joan Jonas traversing sand dunes, Alena J. Williams, in her introduction to Nancy Holt: Sightlines, notes that “the constitution of landscape is bound not only to the physicality of the earth, but also to the physiology and psychology of the viewer, as well as the sensibility of the person framing its view.” In other words, a landscape is never neutral. It is always filtered through a subjective position—in this case, that of two women. The assertion is simple, but it is crucial to Holt’s work. One of the first female Land artists, she is best known for Sun Tunnels (1973–76)—four concrete cylinders that circumscribe views of Utah’s Great Basin Desert. Though imposing in scale, the sculpture paradoxically trains viewers’ eyes to look beyond it, to the sun visible on the horizon or to the starlight that penetrates holes drilled into its walls.

Dia:Chelsea recently presented four works from the early 1970s that preceded Sun Tunnels, in which Holt experimented with delineating and directing views. The exhibition included two works from the “Locator” series. These sculptures look like steel telescopes bolted to the floor, but rather than magnifying a distant point, the welded pipes simply frame a particular vista. In Locator with Spotlight and Sunlight (1972), the viewer peered through a steel tube tilted slightly upward. From the lower opening, one stared at a perfect circle of spotlight near the ceiling; from the upper end, one saw a circle of sunlight surrounded by gray vinyl masking over the gallery’s front window. From other points in the gallery, it became evident that these sunlight and spotlight “circles” were actually distorted, elongated ovals “corrected” by visual perception. Using the sculptural vocabulary of explorers’ binoculars or the camera aperture, the “Locator” works bring to mind common perceptual distortions with larger political implications. Consider, for instance, the Mercator projection on flat maps of the Earth, which makes Greenland appear much larger than the entire continent of Africa.

The positioning of Holt’s viewing apparatuses also spoke volumes about the presumed audience. The single pipe of Dual Locators (1972) was likely installed at the height of the museum’s average viewer. But this writer, at just around five feet, two inches, had to stand on tiptoe to see into it. More petite viewers—not to mention people using wheelchairs—could forget it. Dual Locators is another sculpture that works to confound vision. One side of the pipe framed a void of pitch-black paint. From the other end, the spectator confronted herself in a mirror. The experience foreshadows Holt and Richard Serra’s collaborative video Boomerang (1974), in which Holt explains hearing her echoing voice as like “a mirror reflection…so that I am surrounded by me and my mind surrounds me…there is no escape.”

Mirrors of Light I (1974/2018) creates another perceptual loop. In this installation housed in a room of four freestanding walls, a spotlight shines on a diagonal row of 10 circular mirrors, which cast another diagonal of refracted ellipses on the abutting wall that return to the actual mirrors in partial form as shadows. From certain angles, the viewer could see herself in a mirror, as well as the mirror’s shadow. A similar trick is at play in Holes of Light (1973/2018), where Holt incorporates a timed element. Here, a wall with eight diagonal holes bisects a room. The two walls behind the holes have mounted lights that alternate from side to side every 30 seconds. From the center of the illuminated side, one could see shadows through the holes, which resembled graduated crescents, evoking phases of the moon. Stepping into the path of the light, one’s silhouette appeared alongside these geometric shadows. When a wall was fully illuminated, light pencil marks indicated the path where shadows would soon be. Even as a re-creation installed after Holt’s death in 2014, the sculpture reinforces the artist’s hand as a mediating force between the viewer and “natural” phenomena.