Full Circle: The Holt/Smithson Foundation
A poem is both a centripetal and centrifugal force. It concentrates and distills language at the same time that it spins off sparks of meaning. It is subject to countervailing pressures of connotation and material. And while a poem is thought of first and foremost as a unique semantic entity, it is also a physical object in the world. In a concrete poem—the very term conjoins the solid and the slippery—entitled “The World Through a Circle” (ca. 1970), the artist Nancy Holt writes “The world focuses / And spins out again, seen.” At the top of the piece is a circle made of the words “earth,” “sky,” “water,” “moon,” “sun,” “star,” but the way Holt has typed these words on the page forces the reader/viewer to pay attention to each letter, similar to how one might pay attention to the material surface of a painting or sculpture—a brushstroke or a slight indentation. “The World Through a Circle” also foregrounds its physical quality in that the left-hand margin of the 8.5 × 11 inch paper on which it is typed features three ragged perforations from a hole punch.
Similarly, in “A heap of Language” (1966) Robert Smithson fashioned a pyramid of handwritten words in cursive on a sheet of 6.5 × 22 inch graph paper. At times the work has been designated a drawing; some deem it to be a poem. Consisting of strings of words and phrases for different forms of language and symbolic structures, the work might also be seen as a metalinguistic essay, just as the title of Holt’s “The World Through a Circle” functions as an ars poetica of sorts. Like much of Smithson’s work, “A heap of Language” both condenses and disperses: “Language / phraseology speech / tongue lingo vernacular / mother tongue, king’s English” are the top four lines of the pyramidal “heap.” The work builds outward in semantic resonance at the same time that it expands downward materially. Or as Smithson wrote in “Language to be Looked at and/or Things to be Read” (1967), a short text for which “A heap of Language” came to serve as an image at the top (perhaps like Holt’s circle of words at the top of her concrete poem): “Literal usage becomes incantatory when all metaphors are suppressed. Here language is built, not written.”
The processes Holt and Smithson describe in these poems/drawings/images/art objects/critical writings are also fundamental to what may be their most famous works: respectively, Sun Tunnels (1973–76) and Spiral Jetty (1970). Both works combine centripetal and centrifugal forces, in this case not on a sheet of paper but on the enormous empty landscape of the American West, and specifically the Great Basin Desert, spanning stretches of California, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho. One can quite literally look through the concrete circles of Sun Tunnels just as Spiral Jetty is built of individual stones that write an enormous spiral—rewrite, in fact, because Smithson was not entirely happy with the first version upon its completion and had it immediately revised by the construction crew. Sun Tunnels and Spiral Jetty focus a gaze while making that gaze aware of the vastness of the environment in which it is situated—“spins out again,” as Holt writes in her poem. For the Sun Tunnels, built in alignment with the solstice sun, the gaze extends to the cosmos; from afar, the shape of Spiral Jetty resembles a galaxy. In framing perception, these works simultaneously expand it. Holt and Smithson were artists that thought large, and with the generous support of patrons and foundations were able to realize many of their ambitious works. They were also, as many know, life partners until Smithson’s tragic death in 1973 at 35 years old cut this relationship short a decade into their marriage.
Smithson’s “Language to be Looked at and/or Things to be Read” was the press release for a June 1967 exhibition with the same title—that he co-curated with Sol LeWitt—at Dwan Gallery in New York City, a groundbreaking exhibition space owned and run by Virginia Dwan. Dwan is by now recognized as one of the most important early patrons of what came to be known as Land art, Earth art, or Earthworks (she was also an important champion of Conceptualism and Minimalism), although back then most of the artists she sponsored were so commercially unsuccessful that despite her large fortune as an heiress to the 3M corporation she was forced to close her gallery in 1971. Nevertheless, she supplied the funds for Smithson to build Spiral Jetty (and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, 1969). Her aim in running a gallery may have been to break even, but it was her ability to financially back literally massive, noncommercial artworks located in remote parts of the American West that allowed artists to free themselves from the physical, conceptual, and institutional limitations of the white cube.
The other major supporter of these types of work was, and is, Dia Art Foundation. Founded in 1974, and also reliant on an inheritance, in this instance Philippa de Menil’s Schlumberger oil company fortune, Dia further expanded the ground Dwan had cultivated. This included artists and in certain instances artworks, including Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977), an earlier iteration of which was funded by Dwan. Although it famously renovated an abandoned Nabisco box factory in Beacon, New York, and transformed it into a 240,000-square-foot museum, part of Dia Art Foundation’s original mission was to fund and maintain non-gallery based, site-specific, large-scale, and usually permanent works—ranging from Joseph Beuys’s ambition to plant 7,000 oak trees (with accompanying stone columns) in Kassel, Germany, to purchasing an extinct volcano in Arizona for James Turrell’s (ongoing) construction of Roden Crater (1977–). For Dia’s founders, the model was the Renaissance patronage system. Dia also currently maintains Spiral Jetty after Holt transferred the work to its stewardship in 1999. Then, in 2018, Sun Tunnels became the first work of Land art by a woman in Dia’s four-plus-decade portfolio.
The latter was facilitated by the Holt/Smithson Foundation, which was established in 2017, three years after Holt’s death, although plans for the foundation were made before Holt passed away. Continuing the legacy of Dwan and Dia, and with an endowment created from Holt’s and Smithson’s estates, the Holt/Smithson Foundation funds, supports, and helps maintain the work of its namesake artists as well as other practitioners (in partnership with Marian Goodman Gallery representing Smithson and Parafin representing Holt). A 501(c)3 nonprofit, the foundation has been led by Executive Director Lisa Le Feuvre since its inception. Le Feuvre was formerly Head of Sculpture Studies at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, England, and has a rigorous curatorial and academic background. In a short interview with Keith Wilson published in the March 2019 issue of the Brooklyn Rail, Le Feuvre stated that, “Artist-endowed foundations, in my opinion, are the future of the arts. … They exist because of an artist’s work, meaning art is at the heart of what these organizations do. Because of this, they have the responsibility to be fiercely independent and keep art at the center.” She also mentions that while Smithson is widely known within the art world, Holt has a less prominent reputation, and one of the goals of the foundation is to bring more attention to her legacy.
The Holt/Smithson Foundation has its main office in Santa Fe, New Mexico (where Holt moved in 1995), along with a small staff and a board of directors (including Dwan). The foundation also owns a small island off the coast of Maine and a piece of land in remote Utah, the former bought sight unseen by Holt and Smithson as a potential site for a Land art project; for now, a couple of Smithson sketches are all that exist for the potential work, which he abandoned. Holt and Smithson jointly purchased the Utah property before the construction of her Sun Tunnels. In keeping with Le Feuvre’s desire to illuminate and extend Holt’s and Smithson’s legacies into the future, both sites will serve as points of reference for foundation-funded artist commissions. Five artists selected by the foundation and outside nominators are in the process of being invited to make two- to three-year project proposals for Little Fort Island in Maine; a similar process will occur circa 2024 for the land in Utah. These projects might range from sculptures to texts, and along with dialoguing with Holt’s and/or Smithson’s work, they will almost by necessity be forced to engage with the two sites’ environmental dimension. (Little Fort Island will at some point in the future be swallowed by rising seas, just as Spiral Jetty spent much of its first three decades submerged beneath the Great Salt Lake, only to emerge covered in salt crystals in the early 2000s.) After all, it is the nature of Land art to draw attention to the surrounding elements of weather, terrain, light, and sky. While artists such as Holt, Smithson, De Maria, Heizer, etc., felt impelled to escape the white cube’s commodity-oriented approach, their work now also confronts the urgency of climate change.
One of the most unique qualities of the Holt/Smithson Foundation is that it is a terminal foundation: it has been established to last for 20 years, ending in 2038 (exactly one hundred years after both Holt and Smithson were born). This decision was the result of both resources and strategy. As Le Feuvre told Janet Abrams in a 2019 profile for Southwest Contemporary magazine: “We’d rather put our limited resources into doing things really well over 20 years than over 50. … From a philosophical point of view, the role of the foundation is to get people to talk about these artists. One of the measures of its success will be that it becomes obsolete.” The foundation’s first major project was to produce a comprehensive website and to begin compiling detailed inventories and bibliographies of the artists’ work, exhibitions, histories, writings, and even Holt’s library, including the annotations she made in its books (a bibliography of Smithson’s library—including his record collection—can be found in the back of the eponymously titled 2004 Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, catalogue for his 2004–5 retrospective).
The Holt/Smithson Foundation website is a compendium of resources for those interested in the two artists, and its materials range from the latest news regarding exhibitions and screenings to scans of Holt’s article in the April 1977 issue of Artforum describing the making of Sun Tunnels as well as Smithson’s groundbreaking poetic photo-essay “The Monuments of Passaic” published in the same magazine a decade earlier. The website’s “Time & Space” tab includes a map featuring the major Earthworks produced by Holt and Smithson both inside and outside of the United States. Clicking on a white circle takes the viewer to a Google Maps overhead view of a work by Holt; a black circle links to Smithson. For instance, a white circle hovering above the Nordics (Pinsiö, Finland, to be exact) leads to Up and Under (1987–98), a project by Holt built inside a sand quarry that features a snaking mound of grassy earth, seven concrete tunnels—reminiscent of her Sun Tunnels—aligned with the North Star, and three circular reflecting pools of water. Images and text help elucidate the work, including its construction. A black circle hovering over the edge of the US Southwest connects to Smithson’s Amarillo Ramp (1973), completed posthumously by Holt, Richard Serra, and Tony Shafrazi the same year as Smithson’s death in a plane crash while surveying the site. Like Holt’s Up and Under, it gently rises from flat ground and curves back around on itself, although its materials are the rocks similarly seen in Spiral Jetty.
The foundation is also commissioning short texts for the website that re-envision ways in which Holt’s and Smithson’s art and writings have been received. At this point, there are ten of these scholarly yet accessible entries covering work ranging from canonical pieces such as a Smithson “Nonsite,” to the film Mono Lake, shot in 1968 by Holt, Smithson, and Heizer, although not edited by Holt until 2004. The 8 mm film, which also incorporates Instamatic slides in its final version, is significant because it captures part of Holt’s and Smithson’s first excursion to the American West, and in particular the Great Basin Desert region. (Mono Lake is a salt lake in California on the Nevada border.) Aurora Tang, author of the website’s text on the film, quotes Holt’s 1977 Artforum article in which she states: “I went out West for the first time in 1968 with Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer. As soon as I got to the desert I connected with the place. Before that, the only other place that I had felt in touch with in the same way was the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey, which only begins to approach that kind of Western spaciousness.” She and Smithson had previously organized “tours” of various sites in New Jersey, and Holt’s participation in a group show at John Weber Gallery in 1972 included an audio tour of the gallery’s physical space.
Needless to say, Holt and Smithson’s trip to the American West changed the trajectory of their art and lives as well as the discourse around contemporary art, one that continues to evolve and increasingly reckons with potentially catastrophic environmental change. As artists of the late 1960s and 1970s, Holt and Smithson were each interested in modes and scales of perception, meaning-making, and the status of the art object. Ecological concerns were secondary, but the Holt/Smithson Foundation now highlights them, both in reframing the two artists’ work and with some of the artists it will choose to support. Yet embedded within Smithson’s fascination with the notion of entropy is a powerful sense of environmentalism. This is perhaps most readily seen in Partially Buried Woodshed (1970), a site-specific intervention on the Kent State University campus in Ohio that entailed Smithson having 20 truckloads of dirt dumped on top of a small, pre-existing building. The natural environment slowly took over the site as the building eventually collapsed and disintegrated (and was also set on fire by an arsonist in 1975) until it became a bit too visibly an example of entropy and was removed in 1984.
Holt’s system works are perhaps even more relevant to how climatologists are currently investigating the effects of climate change whereby alterations to one part of the atmosphere initiate a larger chain of events. These site-specific, sculptural installations include elaborate sets of pipes, electrical cables, and ventilation ducts that reference the circulation of energy, air, and water and the ways in which changes to one part of the system affects other aspects of it. Installed in a gallery, Hot Water Heat (1984) and Flow Ace Heating (1985) enabled visitors to adjust the hot water supply flowing through the metal pipes, thereby changing the heat and humidity of the space. Ventilation III: Finn Air (1992) used steel ducts to bring outside air into the Tampere Art Museum in Finland where it was installed. The more explicitly environmental Pipeline (1986), exhibited at the Visual Arts Center of Alaska, Anchorage, leaked oil from its soaring and twisting steel tubing, echoing the frequently leaking Trans-Alaska Pipeline. In 2007 and 2008, Holt was forced to take even more direct political action when the possibility of oil exploration threatened both Sun Tunnels and Spiral Jetty. Holt’s system works are meant to connect inside and outside, conceptually extending deep into the earth where the oil and gas that powers them are extracted. Paradoxically, this ecological dimension became more pronounced in Holt’s art as it shifted from bodies moving through space and landscapes in her Earthworks to bodies encountering complex networks in her system works, not that the two can be entirely disentangled.
Holt’s and Smithson’s concerns with site-specificity place additional emphasis on the individuals, institutions, and foundations willing to support this ambitious work that was expensive to make and impossible to sell, the latter intentionally so. Artist foundations are meant to secure and expand an artist’s legacy as well as to support other artists (and arts organizations). In late 2020, the Holt/Smithson Foundation will begin accepting applications for a fellowship program intended to fund research projects focused on the two artists’ work and archives. Within the four fellowship categories—Indigenous Narratives, Local Narratives, Exhibition Histories, Robert Smithson: writings, lectures, and interviews—the foundation is especially interested in Indigenous studies approaches to Holt’s and Smithson’s work given its various locations on formerly Indigenous lands. The website announcement reads: “There is much scholarship addressing Indigenous Land Rights and Land Art that needs to be conducted. This Fellowship is of central importance to the Foundation. The Indigenous Narratives Fellowship invites proposals from researchers with an interest in exploring the sites of Holt and Smithson’s earthworks, sculptures, and unrealized projects in relation to the histories of Indigenous Peoples and their land.” From initial contact with Europeans along the East Coast to uprisings in the settler-colonial American West in the second half of the 19th century, Indigenous histories intersect with the locations of major works by Holt and Smithson. Moreover, the aligning of major Earthworks with the stars—from Holt’s Sun Tunnels to Turrell’s Roden Crater—owes much to Indigenous monuments, temples, and cities throughout Mesoamerica. The eventual largest Earthwork of them all, Heizer’s City (1972–), which is scheduled to open to the public in the next couple years, was inspired by the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan and is being built on the former lands of the Western Shoshone.
The open-endedness of much of Holt’s and Smithson’s art is mirrored in the exploratory quality of a foundation at the beginning of its lifespan—in the case of the Holt/Smithson Foundation, a pre-established one. In her interview with Abrams, Le Feuvre discusses strategizing for the foundation in five-year increments. As mentioned, building the website, inventorying Holt’s and Smithson’s work, and extending their lineages through artist projects and exhibitions are central to the first stage, including the upcoming Light and Language: Nancy Holt with A.K. Burns, Matthew Day Jackson, Dennis McNulty, Charlotte Moth, and Katie Paterson at Lismore Castle Arts in Ireland (March 27–October 17, 2021), which aims to show the influence of Holt’s work on a younger generation of artists. The exhibition’s centerpiece will be Holt’s Electrical System (1982), a groundbreaking system work utilizing light bulbs and tubing that is being exhibited for the first time in more than 30 years. In a Skype conversation I had with Le Feuvre in early November, she also stressed that documentation—photographs, films, writings, and audio recordings—is crucial to the experience of many Holt and Smithson artworks, and that they both considered these materials to be substantial works in their own right (for instance, Smithson’s film about the making of Spiral Jetty and his essay on the work, or Holt’s photographs of her New Jersey site visits). Thus, over the next five years the foundation is seeking to create an online compilation of the various archives in which these and supplementary materials—sketches, work plans, etc.—are kept. The ultimate goal is to create a digital atlas of available scans in these archives.
The Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. holds Smithson’s papers, and the remainder of Holt’s materials will eventually be deposited there. It will thus become the primary physical destination for researchers, but the hope is for ongoing digitization of their papers (a quick search of the Archives of American Art website shows 123 scanned items from the Smithson collection, including an outstanding tab for Max’s Kansas City). Yet the Holt/Smithson Foundation will be able to quickly direct someone looking for archival materials elsewhere. More audio and video by Holt and Smithson will be added to the website over time. The foundation also plans to begin producing instruction manuals for Holt’s system works in order that they might be exhibited again, a not entirely simple task given that many of them were site specific and extended beyond the physical walls of the spaces in which they were installed. Nevertheless, Holt set precise parameters for her system works, and for both her and Smithson, the unique and autonomous artwork was never the goal, as it had been for a previous generation.
As arts organizations and institutions rush to develop online platforms as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Holt/Smithson Foundation has the potential to help develop new ways of making an artist’s life and work available online to individuals from around the world. (Similar to other arts organizations, it continues to host streamings of Holt and Smithson films during the pandemic.) Thus, the big project for the second five years of the foundation’s 20-year lifespan is to develop online catalogues raisonnés for both Holt and Smithson. In this sense, the foundation is following the trend of moving away from rare and expensive printed catalogues raisonnés and toward online versions. The Henry Moore Foundation, for instance, has made a catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work available on its website for free (as has the Guston Foundation), an invaluable resource for anyone—from scholar to layperson—interested in learning more. The subscription-based Artifex Press is building this digital format as well. The Holt/Smithson Foundation envisions uploading these online tomes section by section as they are completed over five or more years. As with nearly all of the foundation’s projects, the aim is to facilitate ongoing exhibitions of and writings about Holt’s and Smithson’s work, along with artists gathered in their ever-expanding constellation.
Back in the physical world, the Holt/Smithson Foundation is also responsible for the maintenance—entropic or not—of the artists’ Earthworks, some of which are installed in fairly inhospitable locations. This care might be undertaken in collaboration with Dia, the owners of the private land on which a work like Amarillo Ramp sits, a host institution such as a university campus, or else partly on its own. The world may have become rapidly more virtual, but physical location is fundamental to many of Holt’s and Smithson’s most important works—and, in the case of Partially Buried Woodshed, perhaps even more significant than the work itself. After all, it was Smithson’s intent that the site ultimately overtake his “sculpture.” A similar, if more complex, dynamic is at play in Holt’s “Buried Poems” series (1969–71), which involved her writing a poem for a friend when a particular location such as Arches National Monument in Utah or a tiny island in the Florida Keys reminded her of that person, e.g., Heizer in the first instance, John Perreault in the second. She would then place this poem inside an airtight container and bury it at the site.
But this was only one component of an elaborate process she describes in a work statement from 1992 that is reproduced in the Nancy Holt: Sightlines catalogue (University of California Press, 2011) published to accompany her 2010–13 traveling retrospective: “I would then read about the history, geology, flora, and fauna of the site and select certain passages from my readings for inclusion in a booklet, which also contained maps, photos, and very detailed directions for finding the Buried Poems, along with either postcards, cutout images, and/or specimens of leaves and rocks.” This focus within a vastness—a perceptual framing that enables its viewer to see anew—remained an abiding theme of Holt’s work. So, too, did careful attention to the histories and ecologies of the sites where she installed her work. The booklet she assembled and gave to its specific recipient formed a small archive of the site. Le Feuvre mentioned to me that the imagined final stage of the Holt/Smithson Foundation is to transition to a philanthropic organization in 2038. A gift for artists and arts organizations, like Holt’s buried poems and associated booklets, bringing her and Smithson’s life and work full circle.