“Nancy Holt: Sightlines” at the Graham Foundation

Sun Tunnels isn’t the only fascinating artwork in this retrospective of Holt’s early career.
 (Photograph: Courtesy of the artist)
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Photograph: Courtesy of the artistNancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, Great Basin Desert, Utah, 1973-76.
 (Photograph: Courtesy of the artist)
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Photograph: Courtesy of the artistNancy Holt, Preparatory drawing of Sun Tunnels, 1975.
 (Photograph: Courtesy of the artist)
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Photograph: Courtesy of the artistNancy Holt, Pine Barrens, 1975.
 (Photograph: Courtesy of the artist)
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Photograph: Courtesy of the artistNancy Holt, Views Through a Sand Dune, Rhode Island, 1972.
 (Photograph: Courtesy of the artist)
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Photograph: Courtesy of the artistNancy Holt, Concrete Visions, 1967.
 (Photograph: Lee Deffebach)
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Photograph: Lee DeffebachNancy Holt shooting the film Sun Tunnels, 1978.
By Franck Mercurio |
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Like many of Nancy Holt’s land-art pieces, Sun Tunnels grapples with an eternal question: “What is our place in the universe?” Holt’s most famous work, Sun Tunnels (pictured, 1973–76) is an icon of the Land Art movement that reflects the American artist’s interests in astronomy, cosmology, the passage of time, observation and multiple perspectives. “Nancy Holt: Sightlines” displays a mesmerizing film that Holt produced, which captures the monumental scale of the piece within its vast Utah landscape.

One revelation of this exhibition, which focuses on the Santa Fe–based artist’s career from 1966–80, is that Holt explored universal questions in different media and at different scales. While she built her reputation on giant landscape installations, much of Holt’s work in the 1970s centered on experimental media pieces that incorporated photographic imagery, 16mm film and early video installations. In Ransacked and Underscan, Holt addresses themes of life and death, observation and surveillance, and time and decay on a personal and intimate scale. In both works, she juxtaposes photographic and video images of the interior of her late aunt’s house with excerpts from her aunt’s personal letters in the days before she died. Holt’s multimedia works share a haunting, disembodied quality with her land art, implying the presence of humans without ever depicting a human figure.

How did these experimental media pieces inform Holt’s later work? Unfortunately, the exhibition, which was curated by Alena J. Williams and began at Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, does not address this question, but a 300-page “retrospective study” and companion book takes a look at the rest of Holt’s 45-year (and counting) career.

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