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Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt papers, 1905-1987, bulk 1952-1987

Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt papers, 1905-1987, bulk 1952-1987

Smithson, Robert, 1938-1973

Sculptor, Painter

Collection Information

Size: 15.1 linear feet

8 rolled docs

Library: 76.0 linear feet

Summary: The papers of sculptor, writer, and earthworks artist Robert Smithson and his wife, sculptor, filmmaker, and earthworks artist Nancy Holt measure 15.1 linear feet and date from 1905 to 1987, with the bulk of the material dating from 1952 to 1987. The papers consist of Smithson's biographical material; business and personal correspondence, much of it with artists; interview transcripts; extensive writings and project files; financial records; printed material; a scrapbook of clippings; holiday cards with original prints and sketches; photographic material; and artifacts. Also found are project files related to Nancy Holt's films "Pine Barrens" and "Suntunnels."

Biographical material includes Robert Smithson's curriculum vitae, personal identification, and medical documents, eight engagement/day planners Smithson and Holt maintained from 1966 to 1973, and Smithson's funeral register.

Correspondence is primarily with Smithson's family, friends, fellow artists, and business associates discussing personal relationships, proposed art projects, and exhibitions. Correspondents of note include Carl Andre, the Dwan Gallery (Virginia Dwan), Dan Graham, Will Insley, Ray Johnson, Gyorgy Kepes, Sol Lewitt, Lucy Lippard, and Dennis Wheeler. There is also substantial correspondence received by Holt upon Smithson's death in 1973, and between Holt and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art regarding Smithson's retrospective exhibition in 1982.

There are nine interview transcripts with Smithson discussing his works and his general philosophy on art, and one transcript of the Andrew Dickson White Museum's Earth Art Symposium (1969) featuring the following artists: Mike Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson, Neil Jenney, Gunther Uecker, Jan Dibbets, Richard Long, and Hans Haacke.

Writings are substantial and include 73 drafts of published and unpublished essays by Smithson on art, artists, and works in progress. The series also includes poems by Smithson, six notebooks containing notes and sketches by Smithson, and drafts of writings sent to Smithson and Holt by friends and colleagues, including Carl Andre, Terry Atkinson, Dan Flavin, Dan Graham, and Jack Thibeau.

Project files contain correspondence, project instructions, diagrams and sketches, research materials, photographic material, and maps related to over 50 of Smithson's artworks. These include concepts, proposed projects, sculptures, non-sites, and earthwork projects, including Spiral Jetty, Broken Circle, and Spiral Hill.

Personal business records include gallery related loan arrangements and receipts for miscellaneous art supplies. Financial records include tax forms and preparation documents, including cancelled checks, receipts, statements, and related correspondence.

Printed materials include books, clippings, and periodicals related to Smithson, either containing writings or sketches by him, or containing articles reviewing his work. There are also exhibition announcements and catalogs of Smithson's group and solo shows from 1959 to 1985.

The scrapbook contains clippings of Smithson's published articles from 1966 to 1973 with annotated shorthand notes.

Artwork consists of Christmas cards collaged by Smithson, and sketches by Smithson and Leo Valledor.

Photographic materials include prints and negatives of Smithson with friends, promotional Hollywood movie stills, and original prints and copyprints of other artists' artwork.

Artifacts consist of a paper bag silkscreened with a Campbell's soup can (Warhol), promotional buttons (N.E. Thing Co.), various organic materials, and two art kits.

Nancy Holt's papers consist of correspondence, a grant application, printed materials, and project files and audio visual material related to her motion picture films "Pine Barrens," (1975) and "Suntunnels," (1975).

Biographical/Historical Note

Robert Smithson (1938-1973) was a pioneer of land and earthworks art, working primarily in New York City. Nancy Holt (1938-2014), Smithson's wife, was a noted sculptor and filmmaker and also worked as an earthworks artist. Smithson was also a noted sculptor, painter, writer, and lecturer .


The papers of Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt were donated by Nancy Holt in several accretions between 1986 and 2011.

Related Materials

The Archives also holds several collections related to Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt, including an oral history interview with Robert Smithson conducted by Paul Cummings in 1972; an interview with Robert Smithson conducted by Tony Robbin in 1968; Robert Smithson letters to George B. Lester, 1960-1963; and oral history interviews with Nancy Holt conducted by Scott Gutterman in 1992 and Joyce Pomeroy Schwartz in 1993.


Funding for the preservation and transfer of motion picture film provided by the Smithsonian Women's Committee. Funding for the processing of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

A Finding Aid to the Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt Papers,
bulk 1952-1987
, in the Archives of American Art
Biographical Note
Robert Smithson (1938-1973) was the pioneer of land and earthworks art. He was also a noted sculptor, painter, writer, and lecturer working primarily in New York City. Smithson's wife, Nancy Holt (1938-) was a noted sculptor and filmmaker and also worked as an earthworks artist.
Born in Passaic, New Jersey, Smithson expressed an early interest in art, enrolling in classes at the Brooklyn Museum School and the Art Student's League in New York while still attending high school. Smithson's early works were primarily paintings, drawings, and collages. In 1959, he exhibited his first solo show of paintings at the Artists' Gallery in New York and had his first solo international show in Rome with the Galleria George Lester in 1961.
During the early to mid-1960s, Smithson was perhaps better known as a writer and art critic, writing numerous essays and reviews for
Arts Magazine
. He became affiliated with artists who were identified with the minimalist movement, such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Nancy Holt, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris and others. In 1963, Smithson married sculptor and filmmaker Nancy Holt and a year later started to create his first sculptural works. In 1966, Smithson joined the Dwan Gallery, whose owner Virginia Dwan was an enthusiastic supporter of his work.
Smithson's interest in land art began in the late 1960s while exploring industrial and quarry sites and observing the movement of earth and rocks. This resulted in a series of sculptures called "non-sites" consisting of earth and rocks collected from a specific site and installed in gallery space, often combined with photographs, maps, mirrors, or found materials. In September 1968, Smithson published the essay "A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects" in
that promoted the work of the first wave of land art artists. Soon thereafter, he began creating his own large scale land art and earthworks.
From 1967 to 1973, Smithson's productivity was constant as he wrote, lectured, and participated in several solo and group shows a year, both at home and abroad. He explored narrative art as essay in "The Monuments of Passaic" and fully committed to his idea of visiting sites and using them as the basis for creating non-sites,
Non-Site, Pine Barrens
, (1968); incorporated and documented the use of mirrors at sites in
Mirror Displacement, Cayuga Salt Mine Project
(1968-1969); and created his first site-specific works through liquid pours of mud, asphalt, and concrete, including
Asphalt Rundown
(1969). In 1969, he also completed his first earth pour at Kent State University with his project
Partially Buried Woodshed
. Later that year, he created the sculptural artwork for which he is best known,
Spiral Jetty
(1969) on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. This was the first of his pieces to require the acquisition of land rights and earthmoving equipment, and would be followed two years later by
Broken Circle
Spiral Hill
in 1971.
On July 20, 1973, while surveying sites in Texas for the proposed
Amarillo Ramp
, Smithson died in a plane crash at the age of 35. Despite his early death, Smithson's writings and artwork had a major impact on many contemporary artists.
Nancy Holt began her career as a photographer and video artist. Today, Holt is most widely known for her large-scale environmental works,
Sun Tunnels
Dark Star Park
. Holt has also made a number of films and videos since the late 1960s, including
Mono Lake
East Coast, West Coast
(1969), and
(1971) in collaboration with her late husband Robert Smithson.
Points of View: Clocktower
(1974) features conversations between Lucy Lippard and Richard Serra, Liza Bear and Klaus Kertess, Carl Andre and Ruth Kligman and Bruce Brice and Tina Girouard. In 1978, she produced a film about her seminal work
Sun Tunnels
The collection is arranged as 13 series:
Series 1: Biographical Materials, 1905-1974 (Box 1; 14 folders)
Series 2: Correspondence, 1959-1987 (Boxes 1-2, OV 21; 1.7 linear feet)
Series 3: Interview Transcripts, 1966-1973 (Box 2; 11 folders)
Series 4: Writings, 1959-1975 (Boxes 2-3; 1.1 linear feet)
Series 5: Project Files, circa 1950s-1982 (Boxes 4-5, Boxes 17-18, OV 20, OV 22-26, OV 36, RD 28-30, RD 32-35; 6.5 linear feet)
Series 6: Personal Business Records, circa 1967-1970s (Box 5; 4 folders)
Series 7: Financial Records, 1962-1972 (Box 6; 1 linear foot)
Series 8: Printed Material, 1955-1985 (Boxes 7-11, Box 18, RD 31; 5.6 linear feet)
Series 9: Scrapbook, 1966-1973 (Box 11, Box 16; 0.3 linear feet)
Series 10: Artwork, circa 1950s-1970s (Box 11; 4 folders)
Series 11: Photographs, circa 1950s-1970s (Box 11, Box 18; 5 folders)
Series 12: Artifacts, circa 1950s-1970s (Box 11, Box 14, OV 19; 0.5 linear feet)
Series 13: Nancy Holt Papers, circa 1960s-1980s (Box 12-13, Box 15, OV 27; 1.7 linear feet)
The papers of Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt were donated by Nancy Holt in several accretions between 1986 and 2011.
Processing Information
Portions of the collection were processed for microfilming on reels 3832-3837 by Jean Fitzgerald in 1991; the film does not include later additions. In 2003, some of the motion picture film was preserved and transferred to videocassette with funding provided by the Smithsonian Women's Committee. All accretions were fully integrated as one collection and processed by Judy Ng in 2012 with funding provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Additional Forms Available

Portions only of this collection are available on 35 mm microfilm reels 3832-3837 at Archives of American Art offices, and through interlibrary loan. RESEARCHERS SHOULD NOTE: Microfilm does not include later additions to the papers nor does it reflect the current arrangement of the papers but is available for reference use only.

The motion picture films Pine Barrens (release print and a portion of outtakes) and Suntunnels (work print) were transferred to videocassette for research access in 2003 and are available at the Archives of American Art offices.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center. Contact Reference Services for more information. Use of archival audiovisual recordings with no duplicate access copy requires advance notice.

How to Cite This Collection

Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt papers, 1905-1987, bulk 1952-1987. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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