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Abstract Expressionism: A New Art for a New World

After the atrocities of World War II, many artists felt that the world needed to be reinvented


Broken Obelisk

Barnett Newman
(American, 1905–1970)

1969. Cor-ten steel, 24' 7 1/4" x 10' 5 1/2" x 10' 5 1/2" (749.9 x 318.8 x 318.8 cm)

Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, made of Cor-Ten steel, stands over 25 feet tall and weighs 6,000 pounds. An inverted obelisk—a four-sided tapering monument from Ancient Egypt—balances precariously atop a pyramid, another Egyptian form. The sculpture was designed for no particular site, and it commemorates no specific person or moment in history. Some interpret Broken Obelisk as a universal monument to all humanity. However, the severed, upended form could also suggest that there is nothing to celebrate—perhaps an allusion to the social unrest of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests occurring in the United States in the 1960s.

Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now,” Theories of Modern Art (Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1984), 553.

A protracted military conflict (1954–1975) between South Vietnam, supported by United States forces, and Communist North Vietnam, with fighting also occurring in Laos and Cambodia. The war resulted in a North Vietnamese victory and unification of Vietnam under Communist rule.

A mass movement in America, lasting from the early 1950s to the late 1960s, through which African Americans used nonviolent protest and legal action to secure social equality and educational and voting rights.

A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.

A tall, four-sided monument that tapers into a pyramid-like form.

A steel alloy that develops a rust-like appearance when exposed to weather for several years, eliminating the need for repainting. Because of this quality, it is also called weathering steel.

Barnett Newman said: “I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it. … We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been devices of Western European painting.”1