February 01, 2016
HOUSTON – Feb. 1, 2016 – One of Houston’s most recognizable landmarks is now absent from the landscape.
The Rothko Chapel’s "Broken Obelisk" has been temporarily removed for conservation.
The sculpture, an inverted obelisk balanced on the point of a pyramid, is made of cor-ten steel, measuring 26 feet six inches in height and weighing three tons. It was designed by artist Barnett Newman between 1963 and 1967 and dedicated at the Rothko Chapel to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1971.
Due to the sculpture’s location outdoors and over a reflecting pool, water and humidity cause moisture to build up inside the sculpture and deterioration of the metal over time, as well as corrosion around the edge of the base of the pyramid. In what will be the third time the piece has undergone conservation treatment (first in 1987) and the second time it has been removed for such treatments (2005), the sculpture has been returned to the original fabricator, Lippincott, LLC in North Haven, Connecticut. The Broken Obelisk was dismantled between Jan. 25 and Jan. 27 and will be treated and restored over an estimated period of ten months.
Barnett Newman was best known as a painter when he came up with his concept for the Broken Obelisk. In 1967 Newman had two sculptures made – identical twins- one which ended up at the Rothko Chapel, and the other at the University of Washington, Seattle. In 1969 a third edition was made which went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (In 2006, with the permission of the Barnett Newman Foundation, a fourth sculpture was made and installed at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and then later acquired by Storm King Art Center in New York.)
The sculpture had a controversial introduction to Houston, arriving amidst the tumultuous late 1960s. In 1967, as part of a government grant, Houston was selected along with three other cities to receive funds to place monumental works of contemporary art in public places.
The Rothko Chapel founders, John and Dominique de Menil, offered to match the grant in order to purchase the "Broken Obelisk" and bring it to Houston. Their gift came with the condition that the sculpture had to be placed near City Hall and dedicated to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The City of Houston accepted the choice of sculpture and location -- but rejected the dedication. The de Menils withdrew their offer, purchasing the sculpture outright and siting it opposite the future site of the Rothko Chapel. Newman helped identify the exact location, and it was the artist himself who had the idea to place it over a reflecting pool.
Both the chapel and the sculpture were dedicated in 1971, and the two are inextricably linked, representing the dual vocations of the Rothko Chapel: contemplation and action. "The 'Broken Obelisk' represents the Rothko Chapel's commitment to human rights and social justice," operations director Alison Pruitt said. "And the sculpture honors a great man whose life and ministry embodied the values of this sacred institution."
Conservation and restoration
The decision to ship the piece back to the fabricator came after the conservators found retaining water in the obelisk point, as well as internal corrosion advancing within the structure. The plan is to address the deteriorated portions of original material – and to redesign and replace portions of the sculpture to enable water drainage and slow the rate of corrosion. The corrosion around the flame-cut skirt below the pyramid will also be addressed.
The Rothko Chapel, while an independent non-profit institution, works closely with its neighbor, the Menil Collection Museum, to steward its artwork. The conservation department at the Menil, headed by chief conservator Brad Epley and objects conservator Kari Dodson, are overseeing the treatment program.
In the meantime, the Chapel will take the opportunity while the sculpture is away to address much needed modifications to the reflecting pool. Barnett Newman and the Chapel’s original architect, Phillip Johnson, worked together on the design of the reflecting pool. There will be a renovation of the pool to improve both the aesthetic quality and mechanical operation.
Pruitt said that the sculpture is estimated to be reinstalled by 2017, in time for Rothko Chapel's annual birthday celebration of Dr. King, which will include a rededication ceremony. The celebration will honor both the life of a great spiritual leader and activist, and the restoration of a monumental treasure that represents the tragic grandeur of life.
Meanwhile, programming will continue at the Rothko Chapel throughout 2016.
For more information about the Rothko Chapel and the full calendar of upcoming programs, workshops and events, visit rothkochapel.org or call 713-524-9839.