Arts / ‘Gravity-defying’ sculpture transforms NGA

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Barnett Newman’s, “Broken obelisk”, 1963/67/2005, weathering steel. Supplied by The Barnett Newman Foundation.
THE National Gallery of Australia celebrated the installation of an apparently gravity-defying sculpture that will change the look of the NGA’s entrance.

Gone from the space will be George Baldessin’s popular “Pear – version number 2” and in its place will be Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk”, secured on long-term loan.

Gallery staff say the change “reflects the dynamic and evolving face of Australia’s iconic national art institution”. It also foreshadows “American Masters, the NGA’s planned August exhibition of its collection of 20th century American masterpieces.

“Barnett Newman is one of the most prominent figures in Abstract Expressionism,” Gerard Vaughan, NGA director said today, praising the generosity of the Barnett Newman Foundation in lending the sculpture to Canberra.

Heidi Colsman-Freyberger, executive director of the foundation, was on hand to reciprocate the praise, saying: “The NGA’s commitment to post-war modern American art is unrivalled in the Asia-Pacific region, and the loan represents an important moment in celebrating this great artist for both Australia and the United States.”

“Broken Obelisk”, 7.5metres in height and weighing 2.7tonnes is one of four versions in existence. The first two sculptures, conceived in 1963, the year Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. Produced in 1966–67, two are on display at the Rothko Chapel, Houston (that one is dedicated to the memory of King) and the University of Washington’s Red Square. The third version, made in 1969, is at the Museum of Modern in New York.

A monumental sculpture created with corten steel, “Broken Obelisk” features an inverted obelisk with a broken shaft balancing on a pyramid.

The late art critic Robert Hughes wrote of it, “’Broken Obelisk’, perhaps the best American sculpture of its time, is Newman’s meditation on ancient Egypt: a steel pyramid, from whose apex an inverted obelisk rises like a beam of light. Here, Newman bypassed the Western associations of pyramids and broken columns with death, and produced a life-affirming image of transcendence.”

“Pear – version number 2”, the gallery said, would “enjoy a new position in the Australian Garden after a brief hiatus”.



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