Barnett Newman

East Terrace -- Broken Obelisk

Broken Obelisk, currently displayed on the East Terrace of the Museum, is Barnett Newman's most massive sculpture and yet his most soaring. Broken Obelisk posits a dramatic collision of downward and upward forces. The crux of the piece and the source of its paradoxical airiness is the narrow point at which an inverted obelisk balances precariously on the tip of an 8 1/2-foot-high pyramid. The area of contact is only 2 1/4 inches square-a steel rod inside the structure holds the two elements in alignment, making for an overall height of 26 feet. Made of Cor-Ten steel, the sculpture weighs over 6,000 pounds. The topmost surface, where the shaft of the obelisk has "broken," is jagged and irregular, suggesting infinite height but also providing a literal break from rigid geometry. The deliberately rough surface of the steel lends a weathered appearance that reinforces the sense of the pyramid and obelisk as ancient forms, despite the utter modernity of the sculpture.

Although conceived in 1963, Broken Obelisk was not made until 1967, when Newman enlisted the expertise of Lippincott, Inc., a foundry in Connecticut that specializes in the creation of monumental sculpture. That year, two examples of the sculpture debuted almost simultaneously, one in front of New York's Seagram Building as part of the citywide show Sculpture in Environment; the other outside the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in the exhibition Scale as Content. The sculpture immediately met with great acclaim and remains perhaps Newman's best-loved work. A third Broken Obelisk, on display here, was made in 1969 and is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The other versions of Broken Obelisk are permanently installed in front of the Rothko Chapel in Houston (where it is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and on the University of Washington campus in Seattle.

click image to enlarge
Broken Obelisk
1963-69
Cor-Ten steel
305 x 126 x 126 inches (774.5 x 320 x 320 cm)

The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Given anonymously, 1971.
Broken Obelisk
Philadelphia Museum of Art