Barnett Newman created only six sculptures during his career, and Broken Obelisk is the largest and most significant. He conceived of the idea for this work in 1963. Two versions were produced in 1967, and a third in 1969. The example on loan to Storm King, an exhibition copy, was created in 2005. Despite the sculpture’s massive height and weight, the connection between its two monolithic shapes—at just more than two inches wide—seems delicate as it reaches simultaneously upward and downward in precarious balance. Broken Obelisk reflects Newman’s interest in both ancient and contemporary forms; the Egyptian pyramid and obelisk are present here along with the geometric simplicity of modern architecture.
Newman was also engaged with philosophies of universal human experience, and Broken Obelisk borrows symbolism that is deeply embedded in the American experience. America’s most famous obelisk is the Washington Monument, which connotes ideals of permanence, liberty, and national pride. By 1967, when this sculpture was first made, the United States was experiencing a controversial war and the civil rights movement. Newman’s Broken Obelisk thus came to represent civic promises left unfulfilled. It also served as a marker of hope, as Newman’s own interpretation suggests: “[The obelisk] is concerned with life and I hope that I have transformed its tragic content into a glimpse of the sublime.” The owner of another version of Broken Obelisk dedicated the sculpture to Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1971; King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, facing the Washington Monument.