The author standing with the enormous spheres of Dark Star Park, a public art installation that her classmate Nancy Holt, J60, built on a grassy triangle in Arlington, Virginia.
The Universe WithinIt was only after her death that I really came to know my classmate Nancy Holt, J60, the renowned installation artist.
When I arrived on floor 1A of Hodgdon Hall as a Jackson College freshman in the fall of 1956, I had not spent much time away from my hometown of Washington, D.C. My friends at home all came from backgrounds like my own, so I was excited to be living in a dorm with fascinating young women whose lives had been so different. There was someone who had emigrated from Cuba in the early days of the revolution there, someone whose family was connected with the Aramco Oil Company in Saudi Arabia, someone who had grown up on a chicken farm, and someone who constantly played haunting classical music that I had never heard before. Then there was Nancy Holt, who roomed down the hall from me on 1A. She wasn’t nearly so exotic—tall, with honey-colored hair, pleasant, and popular with male and female students alike. I was somewhat envious of her many dates.
Though Nancy and I both studied biology, we never seemed to be in the same class, and never became close. After we graduated together in 1960, I married, raised four children, and never once stopped to think about what might be happening with her. Then at one of our reunions—I don’t remember if it was the fortieth or the forty-fifth—a tall, smiling woman approached me. It was Nancy Holt. I asked her what she had been doing through all those years, and she matter-of-factly told me she created installations, which she explained were large works of art located outdoors, in public places. One of them, Dark Star Park, was in Arlington, Virginia, she told me, not far from where I lived. I promised to visit it when I returned home.
Located on a small triangle of land close to the Iwo Jima Memorial, Dark Star Park resembled nothing I’d ever seen. With enormous spheres and tunnels spread out over the grass, it looked like a game to be played by giants, or a construction site where water pipes were waiting to be placed underground for new homes—only without any new homes in sight. I emailed Nancy to say how interesting I thought the installation was, and she and I exchanged notes for a while. Soon, though, she was out of my thoughts and my life again, except for the rare occasions when I was in Arlington and happened to ride by the installation—I would point it out to my companions, and inform them that a classmate of mine from Tufts had created it. That was how things remained until one day in February of 2014, when I read online that Nancy had died of leukemia at the age of 75. I felt sorry that we hadn’t stayed in touch, and turned to the Internet to learn more about her.
According to Wikipedia, Nancy grew up as an only child in New Jersey. In 1963, she married the artist Robert Smithson. Following link upon link, I discovered that Smithson eventually became famous for his 1970 installation Spiral Jetty, which he created by transporting tons of earth to a site off the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah and shaping it into a huge coil that would remain under the surface of the water when precipitation was normal and emerge in times of drought. Nancy had started out as a photographer and videographer, but she, too, became interested in installations. Smithson died in a plane crash in 1973. Nancy’s grief can only be imagined. She never remarried, but her life’s creative course was clearly formed by their union. She eventually relocated to Arizona after living in New York for twenty-five years, and she went on to work in film and tape, to write, and to create amazing environmental works before her death.
With funds from commissions and fellowships, among them a Guggenheim and two New York Creative Artist Fellowships, she built installations all over the world, at sites ranging from the Great Basin Desert in Utah, to the New Jersey Meadowlands, to Dublin, Ireland, and Nokia, Finland. There is even an installation, Astral Grating, in an underground New York subway station. A retrospective that showcased her works, Nancy Holt: Sightlines, premiered in New York City in 2012 and came to the Aidekman Arts Center at Tufts in 2014. The exhibition catalogue is still available from University of California Press.
The more I researched her life and work, the more I came to understand that, as important as it is to appreciate the extent of Nancy’s accomplishments, it’s more important to grasp why she wanted to share her talent with the world. She once explained that she was “manifesting outwardly in physical form the universe as it is within.” Her psychological building blocks were memory, perception, and point of view, but she was also deeply preoccupied with time and space, and with the sun, moon, and stars.
In one section of Dark Star Park, for example, the metal “shadows” of the spheres align with actual shadows exactly once a year—August 1, at 9:32 a.m. The idea is to commemorate the day in 1860 when William Henry Ross, a local farmer, bought the land that would later become the neighborhood in Arlington where Dark Star Park now stands. Similarly, Nancy built Sun Tunnels, in the Great Basin Desert, with celestial phenomena in mind. The installation’s four concrete cylinders are arranged in an “X”; one pair aligns with the rising and setting sun at the winter solstice, while the other aligns with the same at the summer solstice. Modern-day Stonehenge sun worshippers and art lovers camp out at the site to witness these annual events.
When I returned to Tufts in 2015 for our fifty-fifth reunion, I shared articles about Nancy’s work, and photos of it. Few had known what a stunningly original artist she had become. Later, I called my friend Natalie, a former Hodgdon buddy who hadn’t attended the reunion. We were discussing fun bits of news and gossip when, out of the blue, Natalie asked about a certain friendly dorm-mate, whose name she couldn’t quite remember.
“Nancy Holt?” I enquired.