DIA:CHELSEA | September 15, 2018 – March 9, 2019
Nancy Holt, Mirrors of Light I, 1974/2018. Installation view, Dia:Chelsea, New York, 2018. © Holt/Smithson Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.
In his doctrine of anámnēsis, or recollection, Plato makes a distinction between eternal Forms and their resemblances in human perceptions. The truth of the Forms is a light that has already been seen by the soul in its divine being, and it is this forgotten conjunction or participation of beings in the Forms which the incarnate soul recollects or is reminded of in the world it experiences through the senses. The union of the soul with the Forms constitutes knowledge, just as the union with the light entering the eye with light emanating from the eye constitutes seeing.
-Cathryn Vasseleu, Textures of Light
Nancy Holt is often categorized as a Minimalist because of her marriage to Robert Smithson, but to think of her simply as a Minimalist Frauen der Künstler does both the artist and her art a disservice. Unlike the guys, with their earth-altering bulldozers, Holt’s work inhabits a realm of subtle poetry characterized by a natural and spiritual ecology. She began as a poet and filmmaker, and her exploration of light begins with cinema and travels into in the realm of photology—that branch of physics where the study of light and the soul can metaphorically meet. The remarkable simplicity and purity of her work makes it feel like the alpha and omega of projected-light art. Her practice, which she described as a pursuit of a “concretization of perception,” is a dialogue between the intangible and the tangible, psychic interiority and what is seen. Holt’s welded-pipe “Locators” orient the viewer and connect the light of an interior cosmos—forms already known by the soul—into the outer world. Holt’s work is about being and time. Perhaps the artist said it best: “The act of seeing like the most ephemeral yet heartfelt poem, transcended material product and time.”
Holes of Light (1978/2018), one of the artist’s iconic works, consists of a room bisected by a wall with eight holes, nine inches in diameter, descending on a slant. Two quartz-halogen lighting fixtures (one on each side) alternate on thirty-second timers, creating darkness on one side and light on the other. The light coming through the holes in the bisecting wall casts eight moon-like circles on the dark wall. This work takes us back to the origins of perception, the dawn of the Paleolithic Venus of Laussel holding her moon shaped horn adorned with notches denoting moon or menstrual cycles. When the light reverses sides, pencil tracings of the moons are left visible on the illuminated wall. When looking through the partition wall from the lit side, one can see a single full circle of light on the opposite wall, while the remaining circles become a graduated row of crescents. They are Holt’s version of the notches on the crescent horn. This critic saw Holes of Light at the La Giudice Gallery, in 1973, and still feels there are few projection pieces that come close to it in purity and mystery. The cosmogonic dimension of the piece make it more powerful than the many phantasmagorical high-tech projection works we now see in the art world. Holt can create a universe with one brilliantly placed bulb.
Nancy Holt, Holes of Light, 1973/2018. Installation view, Dia:Chelsea, New York, 2018. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.
The “Locators” are made of pipe sections welded on standing pipes of different heights, and she began the series in 1971, in the loft she shared with Smithson. Some “Locators” were shown in a 2015 exhibition at Parafin, in London, and a book entitled Nancy Holt: Locators, was published by that gallery. The “Locators” were a long series of works, which included: Locator with Mirror (1972), Locator with Spotlight and Sunlight (1972), Locator Studio (1972), Missoula Ranch Locators (1972), Crossed Locators and a Visual Sound Zone (1972, Institute for Art and Urban Resources, New York), Locators with Loci (1972), Dual Locators (1972), (P.S.1) Locator (1980), and Avignon Locators 1972 – 2012). The Parafin book includes excellent documentation of many in the series alongside Holt’s working drawings.
At Dia, two of the “Locators” are shown: Locator with Spotlight and Sunlight (1972) and Dual Locators (1972). Locator with Spotlight and Sunlight starts from a masked cut-out in a window in the front of the gallery, and is sited through the locator, ending on a circle of projected light. Dual Locators begins with a circular mirror and, when the viewer uses the pipe, ends on a black-painted circle on the rear brick wall. The two “Locators” shown at Dia make the viewer long for more, and for a multiple-room presentation like the one at Parafin that included drawings.
An interior space at Dia contains perhaps the most complex work, Mirrors of Light I (1974/2018). All four sides of the room are engaged with the viewer, who stands in the middle. A simple Pegasus theater lighting unit on one wall illuminates ten mirrors (each 9.5 inches in diameter) descending in a diagonal. When standing across from the mirrors, they at first look like holes. On the wall to the left and on the wall directly across from the mirrors, the lighting unit hits the mirrors, forming reflected circles of light. The circles of light become increasingly elliptical as they hit the outer edges of the adjoining and opposite walls. This piece feels the most like a magic trick, because it is miraculously done with one lamp. Perhaps the biggest trick of all is that Nancy Holt’s posthumous installations at Dia, which use only four very simple lighting units altogether, can transport us into the world of Descartes’s theory of lumen natural—or natural light—which has its source in God. In Descartes’s Meditations III and IV, the meaning of lumen natural depends on recognizing how light and nature define one another. For the viewer, “my nature” serves as the basis for pointing to what is beyond the domain of natural reason, the transcendent, and the magical.
Holt’s concrete poem that appears below The World Through a Circle, a drawing from 1970, says it best:
The world through a circle
Elements real and reflected
The sky brought down
A hole through the earth, either way
Drawing in a glance
And then a second look
The world focuses
And spins out again, seen.
ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She teaches in the Yale School of Drama, graduate design, and was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019.