Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk (1963-69)

In front of the Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas

In the MoMA, New York

The work in the square of the University of Washington, Seattle

Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk (1963-69). Cor-Ten steel, 749.9 x 318.8 x 318.8 cm.

Situated outside the Rothko Chapel discussed in yesterday's post is a beautiful and moving sculpture by Barnett Newman. The Broken Obelisk in Houston is dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. The sculpture's path to its current location was long and the de Menils who founded the Rothko Chapel were responsible for its move there. Because I have not seen the work and the history of this sculpture is very involved I have attached here the Rothko Chapel's account of the work and its importance to the overall structure of the Rothko Chapel. The two other casts of the work are in Seattle and in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"The “Broken Obelisk” came to Houston as part of a 1967 government program that gave funds for monumental works of contemporary art in public places. Four cities, Philadelphia, Grand Rapids (MI), Seattle and Houston, were chosen to receive funds. The sculpture that eventually arrived in Houston was first exhibited in front of the Seagram Building in New York City, and then the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The de Menils then arranged for the transfer of the sculpture to Houston as a part of the cultural enhancement program.

Providing both funds and interminable conviction, the de Menils worked endlessly to overcome objections to their proposed dedication of the sculpture to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the question of where the Broken Obelisk would be exhibited. The masterpiece finally found its home in front of the Rothko Chapel.

Newman constructed three Broken Obelisks – one is here in Houston, one is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the third on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. All are made of Cor-Ten steel, a material that is designed to rust. Houston’s, however, has suffered more than the other two, partly because of the Houston humidity and also because this Obelisk is in a reflecting pool. In 1987, foam was blown into the sculpture to stop the seams from popping apart due to air pressure. However, the foam only spurred new problems. The constant condensation inside the Obelisk kept the foam from drying properly and corrosion not only ensued from the outside in, but began occurring from the inside out as well.

The Obelisk’s wellbeing remained unstable until August, 2004, when experts from the Menil were brought in to conserve it. First, it had to be dismantled – much easier said than done! A harness was placed around the pyramid and a huge crane pulled on the harness. No movement at all! A different harness was designed to utilize a central force at the point at which the obelisk and pyramid meet to pry it apart. Still no movement.

The inside of the obelisk contains a “bladder” -- a huge balloon filled with water to offset the weight of the structure and keep it standing upright. On the third attempt, a steel rod was attached perpendicular to the rod that runs through part of the structure in an attempt to break the bladder. To try to break the rust, the steel rod was hammered – hard. STILL no movement.

For the fourth try, specially-made harnesses were attached to the Obelisk and ropes were pulled, applying force from varying directions. In effect, the Obelisk was being wiggled. And it worked! The rust broke and the renovation project could begin.

The "Broken Obelisk" underwent a meticulous restoration process, overseen by Menil sculpture conservator Laramie Hickey-Friedman. Hickey-Friedman’s conservation treatment was designed to be minimally invasive to the sculpture while still stabilizing and strengthening it. Houston’s W.S. Bellows Construction Corporation donated the use of a mill for housing the off-site project, and also the services of an employee to operate the heavy equipment needed to lift and move the nearly 5-ton work of art. The repair of the sculpture was also made possible by a grant from the Annalee and Barnett Newman Foundation.

The "Broken Obelisk" was reinstalled at its original site in time for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, in 2006. Marking the conclusion of Black History Month, on Sunday, February 26, 2006, The Rothko Chapel re-dedicated “Broken Obelisk” in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Rothko Chapel and The Menil Collection co-hosted a ceremony at the reflecting pool outside the chapel. The Reverend William A. Lawson, founding pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church officiated the ceremony, and Jill Jewett, the city’s Assistant for Cultural Affairs, read a proclamation from Mayor Bill White.

Barnett Newman once said, “The Obelisk is concerned with life and I hope that I have transformed its tragic content into a glimpse of the sublime.” This living dedication to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has indeed transformed the city, adding beauty and magnificence that has been enjoyed for over thirty years. “Broken Obelisk” rises anew at the Rothko Chapel reflecting pool, a landmark work of art and a powerful memorial to Dr. King."
- http://www.rothkochapel.org/BrokenObelisk.htm

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