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Broken Obelisk

Barnett Newman

Broken Obelisk

Barnett Newman
  • Date: 1963 - 1969; United States 
  • Style: Minimalism
  • Genre: sculpture
  • Tag: allegories-and-symbols
  • Dimensions: 749.9 x 318.8 cm

Newman made several sculptures, but Broken Obelisk is his most monumental. Its use of heavy, rough-surfaced steel contrasts with the impression of lightness created by the inverted obelisk that almost floats above the stable pyramid. The two parts connect at a space of only two and a quarter inches, with an internal steel rod stabilizing the massive sculpture. Although ancient imagery of pyramids and obelisks are often associated with death, Newman reinvents them here to evoke life and transcendence. Several versions of Broken Obelisk exist, with one in Houston, Texas dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The obelisk is a form from ancient Egyptian art that was a memorial. And what you have here is the top of the obelisk kissing, in a sense, the top of the pyramid—another Egyptian form—its bottom jaggedly cut midway, facing upward to the sky. This is a sculpture, which stands on its head, literally.
Made in 1967—a time of great unrest in the United States—what Newman is achieving here is a memorial form, which is not a memorial to anything in particular. There is this idea of soaring aspiration unfulfilled, a lament for a time that isnt any more one of heroes, but one of assassinations, of broken dreams, disappointments, hopes. I think it reflects Newman's democratic, fundamentally populist political feelings, very much wanting to invent a symbol that represents everybody.

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