The American artist Nancy Holt (1938-2014) willed The Holt/Smithson Foundation, New York into being in 2014 to develop her creative legacy and that of fellow Land artist Robert Smithson (1938-1973). The foundation is behind this book, published to coincide with an exhibition of the same name at Bildmuseet in Umeå, Sweden (until 29 January 2023), and travelling to Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona.
That said, Nancy Holt/Inside Outside is not tied to the exhibition, but is a stand-alone publication that considers Holt’s work between 1966 and 1992. As Lisa Le Feuvre, the foundation’s executive director explains in the introduction, this book “is the exploration of five decades of Holt’s examination of how we attempt to find our place on the surface of our planet”.
Yet it is more than that. It also aims to establish Holt’s reputation as a key foundational member of Earth, Land and conceptual art movements. (Other artists in Holt’s group of friends and fellow artists included Carl Andre, Eva Hesse, Joan Jonas, Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra.) Over the years Holt has received less attention than male artists and peers, including Smithson, whom she married in 1963.
Holt herself began making art in 1966—after a childhood spent mainly in New Jersey and then studying biology at Tufts University, Massachusetts—and is best known for her monumental Sun Tunnels (1973-76) located in the Great Basin Desert, Utah: a work examined by James Nisbet (an associate professor at the University of California, Irivine) in his essay. Nisbet’s focus is on the persistent role of tunnels in Holt’s art and the idea of passage through these works.
Holt’s range is important in this publication too, with special attention given to her concrete poetry in an essay by the curator and writer Karen Di Franco, who makes connections between what she regards as the interior private landscape of the page (Holt’s initial poems were largely unseen at the time) and a move towards works situated outside in the landscape.
The book also includes an extended conversation between its editors Le Feuvre and Katarina Pierre (the director of Bildmuseet) with a focus on Holt’s work in relation to time, location and cultural urgency.
It is, however, Holt’s own writing that takes centre stage here with four short essays, written between 1975 and 1993, revealing more about her thinking and making than anything else. The idea of finding our place on the surface of the planet immediately opens up ecological questions, explored by Holt in the 1993 essay “Ecological Aspects of my Work”. “Self-Interview” (1976) is a self-reflexive piece in which Holt invited the film-maker Adele Lister to interview her about the making of Sun Tunnels. The artist recalled travelling to the American West for the first time in 1968 and feeling connected to the vastness of the landscape.
In 1973 Holt travelled west again with Smithson, who was killed in a small plane crash while surveying the site of his in-progress earthwork, Amarillo Ramp: the work, alongside a documentary of its construction, would be completed by Holt. The following year she bought the land for Sun Tunnels, having already experimented with models on her studio roof in New York. There are fascinating discussions of her conversations with contractors and craft people, among the trucks, drills, cranes and concrete, trying to deliver this immense project in a remote desert location.
Reflecting on her film Pine Barrens (1975), the text of the same name reveals Holt’s thinking on place, process and perception. Giving voice to the “Pineys”, the people who lived in the New Jersey wilderness, the idea was to engage an audience beyond the art world. Holt observed in “Ecological Aspects of my Work” that the art evolves from its chosen site, meaning that she needed to consider natural elements.
The essays and discussion by other writers in this book add thoughtful consideration of theory and practice surrounding Holt’s work. But it is Holt’s own writing, in matter of fact language stripped to essential thought, feeling and material making, that brings the reader closer to the inside and outside of her projects.
• Nancy Holt/Inside Outside by Lisa Le Feuvre and Katarina Pierre, Monacelli Press, 224pp, colour & b/w illustrations, $50/£35 (hb), published 1 November (US) 7 December (UK)