Robert Smithson: Rome is still falling

Holt/Smithson Foundation is delighted to announce an exhibition of Robert Smithson’s early, and largely unseen, drawings at MACRO — Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome. Rome is still falling brings together twenty-two early works Smithson made between 1960 and 1964, the majority presented to the public for the first time, from the collection of Holt/Smithson Foundation.

In 1961, at twenty-three, Robert Smithson travelled to Rome for his solo show of religious-themed paintings at George Lester Gallery. During his three-month stay, Smithson was able to further explore his interest in Western history topics he described as Byzantine art, ideas of archetype, myth and anthropomorphism, and what he named the “façade of Catholicism.” As he reflected in 1972: “I guess I was always interested in origins and primordial beginnings, you know, the archetypal nature of things. This was always haunting me all the way through until about 1959 and 1960 when I got interested in Catholicism, through T. S. Eliot and through that range of thinking. T. E. Hulme led me to an interest in Byzantine and his notions of abstraction as a counterpoint to the Humanism of the late Renaissance.”

This period is also marked by what Smithson described as an artistic and spiritual “inner crisis.” Rome is still falling takes the George Lester Gallery exhibition as its starting point to present a lesser-known earlier body of work that both draws upon and departs from Smithson’s spiritual and religious concerns during his time in Rome. Its title originates from a letter by Smithson to his wife the artist Nancy Holt, written in the Eternal City in July 1961, where, floating in the bottom-right corner of the paper, are the four words: “Rome is still falling.”

The time preceding 1964-65 Smithson described as a “period of research, of investigation.” It represents a moment of experimentation, transition, and development. Smithson reflected that he “began to function as a conscious artist around 1964-5.” The works on paper range from representations of Christ’s feet, face, and fall, to advertisements and magazine cut-outs, interspersed with painted religious themes, moving to black ink and pencil winged figures and architectural structures surrounded by language. The later works on paper in Rome is still falling, made in 1965, introduce the viewer to another period in Smithson’s oeuvre: a set of drawings he began in 1963, at the age of twenty-five in New York, where religious imagery is fully replaced with figures from comic books, erotic magazines and popular culture.

Learn more about the exhibition and view the artworks on display on the exhibition page.

Instamatic photograph of Robert Smithson in Rome, 1961
Photograph: Lorraine Harner
Courtesy Holt/Smithson Foundation and Nancy Holt Estate Records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Archived News

Research Fellowship Webinar with Rory O'Dea

Join us on Thursday October 13th for a webinar by 2022 Holt/Smithson Research Fellow, Rory O'Dea.
Rory will share his research surrounding Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt's time and work in the Pine Barrens, NJ.

Tuesday Texts: Chapter Four

We are happy to announce that throughout October we will be publishing a fourth chapter of our Tuesday Text Series as part of our ongoing Scholarly Text Program, which invites thinkers to focus on a single artwork by Holt and/or Smithson.

Every Tuesday we will publish a text to our website that includes images selected by the author, a short bibliography, citation reference, and endnotes pointing to the author’s references.