Nancy Holt: Locating Perception
Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles
Through January 14, 2023
Written by David S. Rubin
With this illuminating exhibition, the legacy of Nancy Holt (1938-2014) is receiving some thoughtful and clarifying examination. Spanning a period from 1968-1982, the works on view lead viewers on a journey that begins with groupings of photographs taken on road trips, then introduces us to sculptural and photographic investigations of perception, and culminates in a variation of an indoor site-specific installation that is about and operated by electricity. All in all, the sequencing replicates Holt’s thought process and evolution, while demonstrating that she was far more than just the land artist who produced the well known Sun Tunnels (1973-76), four concrete cylinders located in the Great Basin Desert in Utah that are arranged in a cross formation such that, during the summer and winter solstices, they frame and align with the sun.
A native East Coaster, Holt moved to New York City in 1960 where, by mid-decade, she began creating concrete poems and text-based art. In 1968, she embarked on a road trip across the U.S. that introduced her to the landscape and cultures of the Western states. With camera in hand, she began a kind of inventorying that parallels the methodology of photography pioneers Bernd and Hilla Becher, who traveled all over the world to photograph industrial structures and then grouped the photos into grids arranged by categories such as “silos” or “water towers.” For Holt, the subjects of interest included desert grave sites she encountered in California and Nevada and signage with the word “sun” that she observed en route to the Mohave Desert. Unlike the Bechers, who were essentially formalists interested in the sculptural aspects of the structures they photographed and worked according to a rule-based system, Holt’s approach was more spontaneous and open-ended, with a focus on conceptual relationships and potential meanings.
For Western Graveyards (1968), Holt organized sixty photographic prints of desert graves into two grids arranged across perpendicular walls. Reflecting on the imagery, Holt wrote that she was intrigued by the way many of the grave sites are “uniquely delineated, outlined one way or another with various materials—dilapidated fences, railroad ties or stones” and thus she concluded that she was “framing a frame through the camera.” No doubt she was also fascinated by the variety of formats and the stories that can be imagined as we ponder the written words on the tombstones, where some of the deceased are simply named ‘mother,’ ‘father,’ or ‘Baby Baxter.’
Holt considered the other exhibited road trip project, California Sun Signs (1972), to be a visual poem. Consisting of nineteen prints and lighthearted in tone, it plays upon the mythology surrounding the California dream of “fun in the sun.” With the photos grouped in a scattered arrangement, a melodic rhythm emerges as viewers’ eyes move about to decipher the variety of ways in which ‘sun’ appears on signage used for motels, gas stations, and other commercial properties. While Holt’s attention to signage can be compared to a similar preoccupation in 1960s art by Ed Ruscha, her interest in the sun can be considered precursory to her land art opus, Sun Tunnels.
Two years before Holt began developing Sun Tunnels, she fabricated her first “locators,” viewing instruments created by welding together industrial piping in a T-shaped formation, such that they can be looked through with one eye, like a telescope without a lens. With the intention of observing things that usually go unnoticed, she exhibited some in her 1972 exhibition at New York’s John Weber Gallery, and extended the idea by including a tape-recorded walking tour of the gallery that was remarkably thorough and included instructions for looking at multiple details of flooring, windows, doors, and objects in the gallery, as well as what is seen through the windows. At Sprüth Magers, the recording can be listened to using headphones, while the typewritten “score” may be read in a display case installed under the original signage with directions for beginning the tour.
Both locator sculptures on view are meant to be looked through from both ends, that is, either pointing towards the ceiling or towards the floor. Locator with Spotlight and Sunlight (1972) directs our attention to two ellipses of light that become circles when viewed through Holt’s sculptural device. One consists of artificial light projected on the upper wall and the other is formed by natural daylight filtering through a low cutout in film on a window. In the other example, Locator (PS1) (1980), circles are formed via an upwards view of an irregular black shape and a downwards view of an outline drawn on the floor.
Holt merged her interest in making photographic grids with her preoccupation with viewing light in a related photographic series, Light and Shadow Photo Drawings (1978). For this project, which consists of twenty-two prints organized into two rows of eleven, she photographed shapes formed by shining light through curved cutouts and called the resultant abstractions “photo drawings.” Although made of artificial light interacting with shadows, the images could be mistaken for details of a solar eclipse.
Venturing upstairs to the second floor gallery rewards viewers with an immersive experience, in the form of an installation that can be both looked at and walked through. Adapted to the building specifications of Sprüth Magers, Electrical Systems (1982) recreates the first of Holt’s “system sculptures,” large scale installations that expose the hidden systems that we normally don’t see, such as electricity flowing through buildings. Using ordinary light bulbs connected to arch-shaped conduits, the installation is at once a sculpture, a device to light the gallery, and a structure through which visitors can meander. Considering her fondness for site-specificity, if Holt were alive today she would have been delighted to know that this incarnation of Electrical Systems is located across the street from a forest of electrical lighting that her installation foreshadowed by a quarter-century, Chris Burden’s Urban Light (2008).