Berlin Art@Site Barnett Newman Broken Obelisk

Barnett Newman


Broken Obelisk

Potsdamer Strasse 50 (temporär)
An Unburdened Art
Barnett Newman said: “I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it. … We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been devices of Western European painting.”
Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, made of Cor-Ten steel, stands more than 25 feet tall and weighs 6,000 pounds. An inverted obelisk—a four-sided tapering monument from Ancient Egypt—balances precariously atop a pyramid, another Egyptian form. The sculpture was not designed for a particular site, and it commemorates no specific person or moment in history. Some interpret Broken Obelisk as a universal monument to all humanity. However, the severed, upended form could also suggest that there is nothing to celebrate—perhaps an allusion to the social unrest of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests occurring in the United States in the 1960s.
Broken Obelisk is a sculpture designed by Barnett Newman between 1963 and 1967. Fabricated from three tons of Cor-Ten steel, which acquires a rust-colored patina, it is the largest and best known of his six sculptures.
Robert Hughes: "Newman's pursuit of the sublime lay less in nature than in culture. This enabled him to pick ancient, man-made forms and return them to pristine significance without a trace of piracy. One index of that ability was his sculpture. Broken Obelisk, perhaps the best American sculpture of its time, is Newman's meditation on ancient Egypt: a steel pyramid, from whose apex an inverted obelisk rises like a beam of light. Here, Newman bypassed the Western associations of pyramids and broken columns with death, and produced a life-affirming image of transcendence. That unruffled self-sufficiency, beyond style, gave Newman's work its mysterious didactic value. It is not 'expressive'; the silence at the core bespeaks a man for whom art was a philosophical activity, a way of knowledge."
Barnett Newman's inverted obelisk was dedicated to Martin Luther King after his death. The symbolism was too much for the city of Houston.
Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk balances enigmatically above a long, shallow reflecting pool outside the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. Lush swamp-like foliage and obsessively trimmed lawns surround it in the humid heat. You might be in ancient Egypt, the scene is so silent and reverential. The obelisk is an Egyptian form, and Newman makes a double reference to Egyptian architecture: his steel obelisk, its shaft rudely snapped, stands upside down, its pointed zenith impossibly resting on the apex of a pyramid. Two tiny points, two zeros, touch, and immense masses are suspended on a geometrical absolute so refined it does not exist. This is a tremendous work of art, a masterpiece: but what does it have to do with the political theme of this series on American art?
In May 1969 the Texas art collectors Dominique and John de Menil made a generous offer to the city of Houston. They wanted to provide the money for the city to purchase Newman's sculpture. Their vision was for it to stand outside Houston's City Hall and for it to be dedicated to Martin Luther King. Famous up to then primarily as a painter, Barnett Newman had created Broken Obelisk in 1967 and exhibited it to sensational acclaim and controversy in New York; then, in 1968, King was assassinated. The Menils' desire to make Broken Obelisk a monument to Martin Luther King made complete sense. If the obelisk is an ancient Egyptian invention, it is also American: one of the most awe-inspiring obelisks in the world is the stupendously vast Washington Monument in Washington DC. King delivered his most famous speech in Washington in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to civil rights marchers assembled in the park below, with the white needle of the Washington obelisk right ahead of him as he stated "I have a dream ..."
A broken obelisk was a potent emotional way to see America after King's death: the promise denied, the hope shattered, the republic's very rationality snapped in two. For the Menils to see this in Newman's work was visionary, and it was true as well to Newman who always claimed his abstract art was about politics, about meaning. Houston wasn't having it. The city rejected the proposal - not out of hostility to modern art, but because of its dedication to King. So it stands instead in the grounds of the Menil collection, at a site chosen by the artist himself. A monument to all that is broken.
Text: Jonathan Jones.