Remembering Nancy Holt

My friendship with Nancy Holt started 20 years ago, when I contacted her about publishing a revised edition of the writings of Robert Smithson in the Documents of Twentieth-Century Art series. She was the rights-holder and had edited the already out-of-print 1979 edition of Smithson’s writings, so she seemed like a natural choice to edit the new volume. I went out to see her in Galisteo, and we discussed the project at some length. She liked the idea of a new edition of the book, and of having it in the Documents series, but she didn’t want to undertake editing it by herself. So I suggested that I could help her put it together, thinking that once she got started she would become so immersed in it that she would finish it on her own. But she was one step ahead of me. She realized that once we got started, it was I who would become so absorbed by it that I would finish it on my own. Or almost on my own, since she was a remarkably generous person and was always there to help and advise; and she played a very active role in the layout and design of the book.

Nancy Holt, “Sun Tunnels,” 1976. Great Basin Desert, Lucin, Utah. Photos by Nancy Holt. © 2014 by Nancy Holt, licensed by VAGA, New York.

It was while we were choosing the illustrations and working on the layout that I realized what a perfectionist she was. Although she was not at all fussy, she cared very much about how things looked, about how they fit together, and about how the accuracy of written language and the immediacy of visual images interacted with each other. Over the next two decades, I came to realize that she had a very particular attitude toward making things, and toward life in general, which was profoundly affected by her practice as a Buddhist. She was a perfectionist about things and situations that could in some way be controlled, and yet she brought a tranquil acceptance to the kinds of situations that are beyond our control. This was especially apparent when she fell ill with leukemia. Even while in the hospital, she worked very hard on what would turn out to be her last film, The Making of the Amarillo Ramp, which ironically was about Smithson’s last major project. (The irony was not lost on her; she was very alert to the sometimes incredible synchronicity that exists between apparently disparate events.) She knew that her chances of recovery were remote, but never once in all the hours we spent talking during those last months of her life did she ever complain, or express the slightest trace of self-pity. She faced the end with extraordinary courage and with an amazing equanimity and calm.

We were only two years apart in age, and we had in common many interests and points of reference. In fact (as we realized only recently), we had graduated from the same high school in New Jersey, only a year apart, though we had not known each other then, and could recall only a few mutual acquaintances. Nancy had a wonderful sense of the absurd and we delighted in laughing together about many different kinds of things. For example, when we learned that the art critic and curator Bruce Kurtz, whose date of death was erroneously given in the first printing of the Smithson writings book as 1995, was still very much alive in 1996, we simultaneously exclaimed: Mistah Kurtz—he not dead. (Bruce Kurtz, I should note, accepted my subsequent apology very gracefully.) Shortly before Nancy fell ill last October, she had received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center. “Well,” she said to me with a sparkle in her eyes the first time I saw her in the hospital, “I guess you should never accept a lifetime achievement award.”

Nancy always spoke very clearly and precisely, with excellent diction and grammar. She never tried to pepper her speech with curse words or trendy slang. Yet the way she spoke was fresh, energetic, and thoughtful; somewhat patrician in tone, but never stuffy or self-consciously rarefied. And she was, above all, as truthful in her speech as in her actions.

Almost everyone who has done research about either her or Robert Smithson has benefited greatly from her generosity and her devotion to the truth. When she worked, she was impressively focused and had an almost uncanny ability to pay meticulous attention to details—the presence or absence of a comma, for example—while at the same time always retaining a clear sense of the larger significance of whatever she was working on. (This is no exaggeration: just before she returned to the hospital for the last time, she made sure that a particularly troublesome comma would be removed from one of the text frames in her Amarillo Ramp film.)

For over 40 years, Nancy oversaw the legacy of Robert Smithson with the greatest diligence and generosity of spirit, while pursuing the development of her own, very significant body of work. It is no easy task to manage an artist’s legacy, and no easy task to keep one’s own art constantly evolving and growing in force and depth. Nancy managed to do both in the most graceful way imaginable.

I remember quite vividly a trip we made to see the Spiral Jetty in the fall of 1995, shortly after the Jetty, which had been submerged by the Great Salt Lake soon after it was completed, emerged from the water again. As she had told me before the trip, even the most beautiful photographs give no sense of what the Jetty is really like. Only when you are there and can experience the scale, the light, and the way the peculiar silence of the place is punctuated by the soft rhythm of the heavy, almost viscous water lapping against the shore, does its numinous quality become fully realized.

The next day we went out to see Nancy’s Sun Tunnels, of which a number of very beautiful and dramatic photographs also exist. Even more than with the Jetty, the photos do not prepare you for the force of the thing itself. The four large concrete tunnels not only provide a respite from the merciless desert sun, but also seem to gather together within them the energy of all the vast space that surrounds them. They contain an elaborate conceptual program, in that the small holes on top of each tunnel are related to the constellations of Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn, with the diameters of the holes differing in relation to the magnitude of the stars they represent. But they are also very powerful on a gut level. The way the small holes allow star-like spots of daylight into the dark circular interiors of the tunnels creates a mysterious, haunting effect. The tunnels seem not only to absorb and filter and mold the light, but also simultaneously to gather and radiate energy from earth and sky, sun and stars. The whole ensemble creates a luminous, transcendental presence. And the effect of the spots of sunlight that move slowly across the inner surfaces of the tunnels in harmony with the movement of the sun is mesmerizing. I know of nowhere else where time is made more present, more palpable; or where the interaction between solid matter and air and light is more harmoniously balanced.

More than with most artists, Nancy’s persona was very much like her art, and her art so very much like her: precise, calm, accepting, radiant, luminous.

During the last months of her life, Nancy talked a good deal about the unexpected interconnections between so many things, which she called synchronicity, including the presence of leukemia in her life before she herself had contracted it. Robert Smithson’s older brother had died of it as a child. Nancy’s 1977 film Revolve was about Dennis Wheeler, a Canadian filmmaker who was dying of leukemia. And shortly after she entered Sloan-Kettering, she learned that a friend of hers had very recently died there of the same disease. Nancy believed that coincidences have inherent meaning and are part of a pattern that has an abstract, discrete, and independent significance within the universe itself, somewhat like mathematics. This is something that we discussed several times, as she knew that I took a rather different view. I tend to believe that such coincidences are absolutely random and that whatever significance they may have is something that we human beings impose on them in our desire to believe that the world does have some sort of inherent order and meaning. She and I discussed this and related matters at length while she was in the hospital, the two of us sitting alone in her room surrounded by machines that flashed seemingly endless rows of constantly changing numbers: pulse, blood pressure, and oxygen levels, along with measurements of other, less familiar, vital signs.

And amid all this paraphernalia was Nancy herself, propped up in her bed, full of life. So alert and lively, in fact, that if it were not for her surroundings, one would have thought her to be in perfect health.

We never came to an agreement about whether or not synchronicity is inherently meaningful. But we did agree, as we ruminated and reminisced about a hundred different things, that life is amazing, and that it is made all the more amazing, and all the more precious, by the way our existence seems to hang, miraculously, from a single thread. It is often a very resilient thread. But in the end, it also turns out to be very fragile, no matter what you do, or do not, believe. Would that all of us could have the inner strength to face the severing of that thread as unflinchingly as did Nancy.


Jack Flam

JACK FLAM is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and the CEO and President of the Dedalus Foundation.