Inspired Reading

Inspired Reading | Alena Williams on Nancy Holt


Nancy Holt, perhaps best known for her Sun Tunnels installed the Utah desert, is currently the subject of a traveling exhibition, Nancy Holt: Sightlines, curated by Alena Williams. The exhibition originated at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, and then traveled to Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe, Germany. It is currently on view at the Graham Foundation in Chicago through December 17. The show will then continue on to Tufts University, Santa Fe Arts Institute, and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City. Accompanying the exhibition is the publication, Nancy Holt: Sightlines, which serves as a retrospective on Holt’s 45-year career.

Nancy Holt. "Views Through a Sand Dune," 1972. Cement-asbestos pipe, sand, Narragansett Beach, Rhode Island. © Nancy Holt/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

This month, I spoke to Alena Williams about her curatorial process and, of course, the texts that influenced her the most in conceptualizing this exhibition. Williams was familiar with Holt’s earthworks, but became intrigued with learning more about the artist when she came across her video work in the archives of Video Data Bank and Electronic Arts Intermix in 2004. In thinking about ways to present Holt’s career, Williams kept returning to film, video and works on paper. In many ways, Williams’s approach is a study of the archive—what comprises an archive, what is needed to tell a story, what emerges through the process of uncovering material?

The following is Alena Williams’s reading list for Nancy Holt: Sightlines:

Carl Andre, Eleven Poems (1974)

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space [La Poétique de l’Espace] (1958)

Mikhail Bakhtin, Discourse in the Novel (1935)

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions (1990)

Eugen Gomringer, From Line to Constellation [vom vers zur konstellation] (1954)

Nancy Holt, Hometown (1969)

Nancy Holt, Ransacked (1980)

Lucy Lippard, c. 7,500 (1973)

Ann Reynolds, Robert Smithson: Learning From New Jersey and Elsewhere (2003)

Ines Schaber, Unfinished Business: Lewis Hine’s Mine Photographs and Some Questions about Documentary Photography (2006)

Kelly Huang: What led you to the texts you listed above? Which were you familiar with prior to organizing the exhibition, and which were you led to through the process of looking at Nancy Holt’s practice?

Alena Williams: There are a handful of these that I was already aware of before the show started—Michel Bakhtin’s writings on the dialogic imagination, Benjamin Buchloh’s analysis of authorship in conceptual art, Ann Reynolds’ monograph on Robert Smithson—and then as I started working on this exhibition, these other things began sifting in. Of course, Nancy Holt’s artist’s book, Ransacked, I also knew before the exhibition. My relationship with those texts changed as I worked on the exhibition because I started to see things relevant for her work that I would not have otherwise assumed.

The two that I would bring up right away are Ines Schaber’s essay on Lewis Hine’s photographs and Ann Reynolds’ book because of their attention to the archive. Schaber is an artist based in Berlin who I invited to participate in the Sightlines publication. Her essay on this list traces the relationship between the photographs Lewis Hine took of workers at a Pennsylvania mine and the Corbis archive which now owns the digital rights. This new archive is located in the very mine where Hine’s photographs were taken. My discussions with Schaber early on gave me a suggestion of how I might be able to expand the contents of the Sightlines exhibition beyond the films and videos.

Ann Reynolds’ book is really about an art historian’s relationship to the archive. And she does an elegant job describing how she developed a new orientation to Smithson’s work by not taking his non-sites nor the Spiral Jetty (1970) as her main points of departure. Instead she was looking at notes in his archive, visiting locations and institutions that had meaning for him, like the Natural History Museum. This opened up my way of thinking when I visited Holt in Galisteo, New Mexico over the years.

Nancy Holt. Preparatory drawing of “Sun Tunnels,” 1975. Pencil and twelve black and white photographs on paper. 14 x 20 in. © Nancy Holt/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

KH: The Bakhtin and Buchloh essays that you cited are classic theoretical texts—Bakhtin in the literary realm and Buchloh in the visual arts—that are quite broad. Can you speak to how these influenced your thinking about curating Sightlines?

AW: It was an exhilarating process because so much of Holt’s work on paper was just filed away—and with every visit these things would just kind of filter out. I would also browse sometimes through her library. There were many days working with her while I was developing the image program for the book, and sometimes there were things she had dug out that she wanted to share. Not everything was of interest, but certain things that definitely were. The concrete poems, for example, really excited me. In developing the exhibition, I always thought it would be difficult to draw the connection between her conversation-based media works and her—intensely sculptural—practice in nature. But when I saw these, these pieces began to really fall into place and I started to focus more on authorship and the way that language is involved in creating a sense of place. This is why Bakhtin and Buchloh’s writings were important in my chapter on this in the Sightlines book and why I put them on the list. I think initially Holt was like, “oh these funny, weird things,” but now some of these poems, like Hometown, are seen as real unexpected treasures of the exhibition.

Nancy Holt. "Pine Barrens," 1975. Still from 16-mm film. © Nancy Holt/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

KH: Eugen Gomringer’s From Line to Constellation (1954) explores how language is increasingly being simplified, and how that brings common language closer to poetry. This notion led him to the idea of constellations, or arrangements of words as a form of poetry, which is now known as “concrete poetry.” How did Gomringer influence Nancy Holt, and when did Holt begin creating her own concrete poems?

AW: In the late 1960s, Holt began working at Harper’s Bazaar as the assistant to the literary editor Dale McConathy. He was an unusual figure working at a magazine that one might dismiss as semi-popular and purely for women, but at that time, it was becoming very experimental with its literary contributions. Concrete poetry played a big role in the work that they were looking at and talking about there. Certainly, she was aware of concrete poetry and some of the major figures, but for me Gomringer’s essay was one of the things that I pulled in while developing my chapter in the book—his emphasis on constellations said something to me about Holt’s sculptures, too. Her literal engagement with these kind of systems.

Holt’s friendship with Carl Andre was something that also led her in that direction. That’s why his book, Eleven Poems, ends up on the list. Nancy has one or two of the books of poetry he published in her personal library. Though primarily known as a sculptor, Andre has a vast amount of work in poetry and his relationship to both areas were also intertwined. It was not exactly concrete poetry in the manner that Gomringer describes. For Andre, words were like solid objects that could be moved around visually, but it was very systematic, geometric. You can imagine it much like his sculptural works—the relationship between the parts and the whole appear deceptively simple, but it is complex. Whereas when Holt is doing her concrete poems, it is all based on location and awareness of the space around her. It takes on a different inflection completely, and it is a modest practice. These were not being heavily published at the time. Only one or two were ever really seen by people back in the late 1960s.