Nancy Holt: 1938-2014
Nancy Holt, who died last week, was one of the original land artists working in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, along with Dennis Oppenheimer, Michael Heizer, James Turrell, Walter de Maria and Robert Smithson, all of whom had little time for the constricting space and rules of urban galleries and art museums. They said they were making art for the land, the ultimate expression of 1960s freedom – at the beginnings of the environmental movement and working at the scale of infrastructure, the military and the mining industry.
Land Art had its roots in Minimalism and Conceptual Art, where 'art products' are often ephemeral, unrecognisable or self-destructing. Looking back on it now it appears as a real struggle to return agency to the artist: Nancy Holt bought the 40 acres of Utah desert for Sun Tunnels, and hired, as she listed: '2 engineers, 1 astrophysicist, 1 astronomer, 1 surveyor and his assistant, 1 road grader, 2 dump truck operators, 1 carpenter, 3 ditch diggers, 1 concrete mixing truck operator, 1 concrete foreman, 10 concrete pipe company workers, 2 core-drillers, 4 truck drivers, 1 crane operator, 1 rigger, 2 cameramen, 2 soundmen, 1 helicopter pilot and 4 photography lab workers' to install it. Plus the culverts.
The places that Land Artists worked were marginal – in those vast deserts of the American southwest, there were hardly any roads. When in 1982 Reyner Banham wrote Scenes in America Deserta, a reprise of Charles Doughty's 1888 Travels in Arabia Deserta, Banham was well aware of the elision of desert and deserted. And in the mid 1990s when I tried to plot a winter route from central Texas to Calgary through all the flat bits, I found one cannot cross Nevada from north to south. This is a deserta militaria, for most of those deserts are used as test sites, training exercises, speed tests and places to go mad in.
Nancy Holt did not go mad; she married Robert Smithson and continued to work in land art, film and photography from France to Finland and across the United States. There was an exhibit of her photographs last year at Vancouver's Contemporary Art Gallery, whence this lovely image comes.