The artist made several other sculptures, but this one is probably his most monumental work. The needle is constituted of three tonnes of weathering steel, weighs 6000 pounds and stands 25 feet tall. It has been fabricated between 1963 and 1969.
The subject of the artwork clearly refers to many aspects of Ancient Egyptian monuments. The shape of the sculpture's base is a pyramid, visually similar to the ones in Giza, Egypt. Resting on it there's another Egyptian symbol, an inverted obelisk precariously balancing on the pyramid's top.
The base of the inverted obelisk that constitutes the sculpture's summit looks damaged as if it was roughly extracted from the ground.
The two parts of the sculpture connect at a very little space of just two inches and a quarter. At first sight, this junction point seems to be going against physics' law, but in reality, the whole sculpture is stabilised by a steel rod hidden in the monument's trunk.
The meaning of Broken Obelisk has frequently been debated by art critics. In the Ancient Egypt, pyramids and obelisks were considered symbols of death, the former ones were the tombs of the pharaohs while the latter ones referred to the unearthly entity of Ra, the solar god. Despite the meaning that this symbols carried along through centuries, Barnett Newman decided to reinvent their connotation and utilise them to communicate transcendence and life.
According to the artist, this sculpture was designed without thinking about a particular site and it doesn't commemorate a specific artwork or person in history.
Many experts defined the sculpture a universal monument to the whole humanity, describing its shapes and meaning as global ones. The artwork is by no means "expressive", but it's the silence that lies inside it that enables a wider range of possible meanings and interpretations.
Robert Hughes (1938 - 2012), a famous art critic wrote: "Broken Obelisk, perhaps the best American sculpture of its time, is Newman's meditation on ancient Egypt" .
Hughes believes that with "Broken Obelisk" Newman managed to bypass the Western associations of broken columns and pyramids with death and moreover produce a symbol of transcendence that firmly announces life.
The Broken Obelisk was so well received that after the first one other versions of it were created. Nowadays a total of four multiples of the sculpture exist.
The first two copies were fabricated in Connecticut between 1966 and 1967 and first appeared during the 1967 exhibit "Scale and Content" outside the "Corcoran Gallery of Art" in Washington D.C and in front of New York City's "Seagram Building".
The third multiple was fabricated in 1969 after some improvements to the monument's structure. It is currently exposed in the Museum of Modern Art as a piece of the gallery's permanent collection.
The fourth multiple was commissioned in 2003 after Newman's death with the permission of the "Barnett Newman Foundation". It was completed in 2006 and was installed in Berlin in front of the "Neue Nationalgalerie" before being acquired by the "Storm King Art Center.
During the summer of 2014, all the four versions of "Broken Obelisk" were exposed in the United States at the following locations: Rothko Chapel in Houston; Red Square at the University of Washington, Seattle; Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, New York.
In addition to his contribution to the history of sculpture, Barnett Newman was also one of the main exponents of the colour field painting. He is famous for his existential artwork, composed by approaching different colour tonalities and linking them to a wider meaning. Newman's paintings are minimal, abstract, and communicate a sense of presence, contingency and locality. They are composed of thin vertical lines, or "zips" as Newman frequently called them. The zips divide the painting and clearly define its spatial structure.
Ornament I (1948), the first painting where Newman utilised "zips", is essentially a brown canvas with a thin and straight yellow line in its centre. In some ways, the spatial structure of Broken Obelisk recalls the basic ideas of Onement I. Both artworks are defined by lines that travel across them starting from the ground and slowly stretch towards the sky.
After this painting, Newman created a series of five artworks around the same line theme Onement II, III, IV, V and VI. Lines are also protagonists of other canvases like "By Twos" (1949) and "Dionysius" (1949).