Every April 5, when the afternoon sun hits the sculpture “Time Span” at the Contemporary-Laguna Gloria, a shadow of the sculpture’s steel wheel aligns around a plaque on the ground that’s inscribed with the date of artwork’s completion: April 5.
The date is also the artist’s birthday: Nancy Holt finished installing the concrete and steel piece in 1981.
When it was originally commissioned by what was then known as Laguna Gloria Art Museum, “Time Span” was intended to be temporary, part of a NEA-funded project called “Seven Sculptors” that brought site-specific work to the museum’s lakeside grounds.
Annette DiMeo Carlozzi was curator of Laguna Gloria at the time, responsible for bringing Holt’s “Time Span” — along with the work of two other women sculptors — to the Austin museum. Carlozzi recalled Holt being rather circumspect about the confluence of the sculpture’s completion and her birthday
“She kept it to herself. Obviously, she knew when she planned the trip to Austin to complete the installation, that we’d wrap up on her birthday, but we didn’t discuss it,” Carlozzi told me in early March 2020.
When Carlozzi and I met, there were still plans for several events centered on “Time Span,” a celebration of the news that the New Mexico-based Holt/Smithson Foundation — the legacy left by Holt (1938–2014) and artist Robert Smithson (1938–1973), who was Holt’s husband — had officially donated the sculpture to the museum, now the Contemporary Austin.
My meeting with Carlozzi would turn out to be the last face-to-face interview I did before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world.
Now, a year later, though the time span of the pandemic is still elastic, the Contemporary has revived new socially-distant versions of last year’s “Time Span” programming, including an April 2 outdoor screening of short films by Holt and Smithson, a collaboration with Austin Film Society. And on April 5, the sculpture and its shadow will be celebrated in an outdoor event for a limited number of people with advance tickets.
Though intended to be temporary “Time Span” has not only stayed in place but seems indelibly rooted in its surrounding, bridging a liminal zone where the tip of the Laguna Gloria peninsula transitions to a marshy shoreline. Chains connect the sculpture to steel poles standing in the water, while the stucco-and-concrete base sits rooted on terra firma.
Holt, Carlozzi told me, was intensely aware of her body in relation to the planet, to her natural surroundings and the sun and the sky.
“She was very much located in her body and she created experiences for other bodies —intimate and personal experiences. ‘Time Span’ is a really intimate piece. You can use your hand to pull down the steel wheel and look down at your feet and see its shadow in relation to the shadow of your body.”
With the “Seven Sculptors” project underway when Carlozzi arrived in Austin in 1979, she chose three artists — “all women, all artists who were not always taken care of in the way they should be.”
Carlozzi was only in her late 20s at the time she commissioned “Time Span.” But she was setting the trajectory of a noted career as a curatorial champion of women artists, artists of color, local artists in whatever community she lives — the artists overlooked by the established hierarchies of the art world. (After she left Laguna Gloria in 1986, Carlozzi was director of the Aspen Art Museum, director of New Orleans’ Contemporary Arts Center, visual arts producer for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and finally back to Austin where she was founding modern and contemporary curator at the Blanton Museum of Art, before taking retirement in 2014. She is now on the board of the Contemporary.)
In addition to Holt, Carlozzi commissioned New York-based Elyn Zimmerman, who created “Sightline/Intersection,” a series of low-slung rock walls.
Carlozzi also commissioned Clyde Connell, a self-taught sculptor whose human-scale totem-like assemblages made of wood, metal, papier-mâché and found objects and material were inspired by the Louisiana bayou where she lived and worked her entire life. Connell was 80 at the time of her 1981 Laguna Gloria project, a trio of totems that eventually disintegrated years later.
When Holt first arrived in Austin to scout out a location, Carlozzi recalled the artist making a thorough inspection of the museum’s 12 acres that are anchored by the historic 1916 Driscoll villa. “She looked at the whole grounds, but she wanted her piece to be on the shore at the furthest spot removed the villa — the wildest spot.”
At the time, Holt was in the midst of working on “Dark Star Park,” a permanent installation on a traffic island in Arlington, Va., Holt’s most urban creation.
“One of the reasons she embraced ‘Time Span’ was because she also involved in all of the complications that come with a major, urban public art project,” Carlozzi said. “In contrast, we were this nice sweet, temporary, wildness project.”
Of course the 40-year time span since “Time Span” was installed has seen Austin and its cultural landscape radically change in size, scope, style — and financials.
“What is here now is so astronomically different than when Holt came,” said Carlozzi, recalling that the museum put Holt up in a modest-to-shabby residential hotel. Holt had very little interaction with anybody in town, art community or otherwise. Maybe she went out for a beer with museum staff working on the installation? It’s not remembered.
“Now, it’s all so luxurious,” said Carlozzi. “You don’t bring an artist to Austin for a project without also offering fabulous hospitality and events. Before, the foremost ethos was not always ‘Austin’s going to make a name for itself’ in the art world.”
Is that a good thing or it that a bad thing, I asked Carlozzi.
“That’s another conversation.”
A free online event “On Nancy Holt’s Life and Art: A Conversation with Deedee Halleck, Rachel Kushner and Lisa Le Feuve” is at 6 p.m. April 5. See thecontemporaryaustin.org/event/