Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk

By Polcari, Stephen | Art Journal, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk

Polcari, Stephen, Art Journal

Barnett Newman's monumental architectural sculpture Broken Obelisk (fig. 1) would seem at first to be unrelated to the principal history of his generation, that is, World War II with its millions of dead.(Figure 1 omitted) After all, the sculpture was designed for no particular site in 1963-64 and fabricated in 1967 in an edition of three. It was dedicated to Martin Luther King after his assassination, and its six thousand pounds of Cor-Ten steel more than twenty-five feet high do not immediately suggest the war. The sculpture consists of a pyramid topped by a reversed obelisk ascending yet tom, or "broken," at its top. Although it is obviously some kind of symbolic object roughly resembling traditional commemorative monuments of combined pyramid and obelisk, no relevance to any historical experience has been adduced yet by art historians, aside from its dedication. Newman himself described the sculpture in terms conventional to his art: "It is concerned with life and I hope I have transformed its tragic content into a glimpse of the sublime."(1)

According to Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess, the sculpture is consistent, too, with the expression of their original ideas of Newman and of most Abstract Expressionist art. As Hess put it, the sculpture is about the act of creation, a celebration of life, of birth and renewal, in art and in man."(2) To be sure, Broken Obelisk does embody an act of creation in the drama of contact between pyramid and obelisk, but there is much more signified in it than an act of existential gesture in a void, the underlying text to their exegeses. Hess and Rosenberg have actually responded accurately but without full awareness of the origin and context of these ideas.

Broken Obelisk is not just another example of the creative process as conceived in the 1950s by the New York School, the successor to Abstract Expressionism, and its critics. It alludes to a larger context and has greater meaning in Newman's work, in history, and in culture. At the very least, Broken Obelisk distills and exemplifies a basic conception of the generation of World War II and earlier: the triumph of life over death and the human spirit over suffering. I have written of this conception as a fundamental myth, perhaps the historical myth of the war and postwar years--and of today as well, for it remains the most common modern intellectual and spiritual means of assimilating tragedy in the West, aside from litigation.(3)

Newman's sculpture actually represents the confluence of three streams of thought, both individual and historical: the modern memorialization and monumentalization of the dead, especially the war dead; widespread high and low imagery of regeneration amid disaster during and after the interwar crisis years and the Second World War; and Newman's symbolization of the cycle of human life and death. Broken Obelisk is thus a product of widespread ideas and traditions in modern times and not simply the personal musing of a self-referential artist. It is a major modern artist's own monument to essential questions more shaped by history and tradition than autobiographical act. Let us look briefly at the three streams on which Newman focuses.

A society often defines itself in monuments that address its most cherished conceptions and most profound feelings. Public and private remembrance and memorialization of death manifest and symbolize the collective spiritual needs and first principles of a given time. Broken Obelisk stands as part of a long Romantic tradition that began at the end of the eighteenth century and still lives today: the quest to honor, and sometimes, to expiate, the dead, especially the war dead.

Before that time for much of a millenium, Christian hierarchy and authority had dominated the burial of the dead. For centuries in Europe, the dead were buried together in church yards, or in charniers--charnel houses--in cities and towns with such Christian mortuary images as skulls, suggesting memento mori, and triumphant skeletal figures, standing above the chapels and mass grave sites.

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