Since its emergence in the early 1960s, Land Art has been associated with white men in cowboy hats, tearing up the desert plains of central America to leave their own indelible mark on the landscape.
That macho archetype came at the expense of many female land artists whose work was badly underfunded in comparison to their male counterparts. Foundations, galleries and private donors acted as if women were less capable of implementing the large-scale projects which Land Art had come to stand for. This meant that pioneering artists like Nancy Holt were allotted a secondary role, while her husband, Robert Smithson, was celebrated as the creator of the iconic work Spiral Jetty.
Andreas Schleicher-Lange, the director of Sprüth Magers gallery currently showing a Holt solo show, believes that: “few women artists in the 60s and 70s had the same status as their male colleagues, not because they weren’t working or less relevant but because their work was simply not seen in many exhibitions.”
In recent years, things have started to change. Following her death in 2014, renewed attention was given to the artist, first an exhibition of her work in New York in 2018 and again at Lismore Castle in Ireland earlier this year. Focus has also been trained on her most famous work Sun Tunnels, located in Utah’s Great Basin Desert. There, four concrete cylinders rest on the sand like enormous telescopes, the tubes perforated with circular holes which allow viewers to monitor the earth’s rotation through the movement of the stars and sun.
Land Art was fixated on changing the environment, her work was about perceiving, highlighting what you can actually see.
“Land Art was fixated on changing the environment, whereas her work was about perceiving, highlighting what you can actually see,” explains Schleicher-Lange. In Sun Tunnels, “there’s been no modification to the landscape. Holt has made a device that enhances the environment and your position within it.” Framing specific objects or creating new perspectives, Holt’s work made viewers feel connected, both to each other and to the surrounding landscape.
Holt was also adept at sculpting with light and often created works that transcended boundaries of sculpture, architecture and installation. This is why seeing her purely in terms of Land Art is problematic, as it fails to acknowledge her role as one of the first artists to connect art with eco-activism.
Sprüth Magers will be showing the site-specific installation, Mirrors of Light I. Consisting of a spotlight directed at a diagonal row of mirrors, the resulting refractions form an array of dots that are projected across the gallery walls like reflected suns.
The satisfaction in knowing that Holt’s body of work is finally getting the consideration it deserves is tempered somewhat by the thought of what she might have achieved had she been afforded the same support and financial backing as her male counterparts. “There’s been a development,” says Schleicher-Lange, “artists that have been overlooked over the years are finally being discovered and contextualised.”
Sprüth Magers Through February 2, 2022