Rothko Chapel’s ‘Broken Obelisk’ Sculpture Faces Another Restoration

A Barnett Newman sculpture plagued by rust has been removed from its home in Houston’s Rothko Chapel for restoration, the Houston Chronicle reports.

Called “Broken Obelisk,” the sculpture is one of three created by Newman in 1967. One sits at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, and another at the University of Washington. However, Houston’s version is in a more precarious state than the other two due to Houston’s humidity and the sculpture’s proximity to a reflecting pool, according to Rothko Chapel.

broken obelisk rothko chapel

“Broken Obelisk,” Barnett Newman. source: rothkochapel.org

The Chapel website describes a history of problems caused by condensation collecting inside the sculpture. First, in 1987, “foam was blown into the sculpture to stop the seams from popping apart due to air pressure,” but evidently the foam only created more problems. It wouldn’t dry, and then the inside of the sculpture started to rust. So the sculpture underwent another restoration project in 2004 and was reinstalled two years later.

For this round of repairs, drainage will be added to the sculpture, with hopes to have it back in place within a year, the Chronicle reports.

“Broken Obelisk” had a bumpy history in Houston from the start.

Newman’s sculpture was brought here by the art patrons Dominique and John de Menil, but it wasn’t originally planned for this spot. As Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian, the de Menils “wanted to provide the money for [Houston] to purchase Newman’s sculpture. Their vision was for it to stand outside Houston’s City Hall and for it to be dedicated to Martin Luther King.”

The Menils’ desire to make Broken Obelisk a monument to Martin Luther King made complete sense. If the obelisk is an ancient Egyptian invention, it is also American: one of the most awe-inspiring obelisks in the world is the stupendously vast Washington Monument in Washington DC. King delivered his most famous speech in Washington in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to civil rights marchers assembled in the park below, with the white needle of the Washington obelisk right ahead of him as he stated “I have a dream …”

A broken obelisk was a potent emotional way to see America after King’s death: the promise denied, the hope shattered, the republic’s very rationality snapped in two. For the Menils to see this in Newman’s work was visionary…

And Houston blocked it. The City Council rejected the proposal for the sculpture with the dedication to Martin Luther King.

So instead, the de Menils bought it outright, and it found its home in front of Rothko Chapel.

Rothko Chapel was founded by the de Menils as a chapel for all believers, a museum, and a forum, and is also home to a suite of Mark Rothko paintings. The Chapel is free and open to the public.