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Nixon fingerprints missing from provocative sculpture's relocation

By John Kelly
Sunday, March 7, 2010; C03

While visiting the Menil Collection in Houston recently, I got to chatting with one of the museum staff and happened to share that I was a D.C. area resident. Her face brightened, and she very excitedly started telling me a story of how the Menil Collection acquired Barnett Newman's sculpture "Broken Obelisk," which is currently installed in a reflecting pool near the Rothko Chapel. According to this staff person, the sculpture was originally installed outside the Corcoran as a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but then-President Richard Nixon ordered that the work be removed. Apparently, the juxtaposition of Newman's broken, inverted obelisk with the Washington Monument was considered blasphemy. Is this really true?

-- Ronald Keeney,

Takoma Park

Poor Nixon. He gets blamed for all sorts of things. True, he trashed the Constitution, sullied the office of the presidency and ordered the bombing of Cambodia, but he didn't order the removal of this particular work of art.

A little background: In 1967, an exhibit called "Scale as Content" opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It consisted of but three sculptures, but what sculptures. Inside were Tony Smith's "Smoke," a sprawling, 45-foot-long asymmetrical assemblage of aluminum, and Ronald Bladen's "The X," a 28-foot-high black plywood construction shaped like the 24th letter of the alphabet. Outside, at the corner of 17th Street and New York Avenue NW, was "Broken Obelisk." Seemingly balanced upside down atop a pyramid was the shattered top of an obelisk. Made of Cor-Ten steel and weighing 6,000 pounds, it soon took on a characteristic rusty patina.

The Corcoran exhibit announced that Washington "was going to be hip to contemporary art," remembered former Post art critic Paul Richard, who covered the installation for the paper. But Barnett Newman's work was not without controversy, the same sort of controversy that would later dog Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "Broken Obelisk" wasn't exactly what you'd call "pretty."

"The obelisk, for an abstract work of art, seemed to say our principles of the great white marble capital of America are broken," Paul said.

"Remember how divided the country was at that time," he said. What many considered an insult "sat right in front of the curving wall of this neoclassical building. The siting was great -- it really did merge the museum and the Mall and the White House -- but it seemed to represent one side of a huge political divide. Nixon was clearly on one side of that divide, but Nixon didn't run the Corcoran."

It was apparently the departure of the Corcoran's director, James Harithas, that prompted artist Newman to remove the sculpture. "If Jim were here and it were a settled situation, my attitude would be totally different," Newman told The Post on July 10, 1969, the day he supervised the removal of the 22-foot sculpture.

The next chapter in the sculpture's odyssey involved Houston, which was among four U.S. cities promised $45,000 in federal matching funds for public art. The oil town had problems raising its part of the money so philanthropist John de Menil offered to fund an installation himself, on three conditions: that the work be Newman's "Broken Obelisk," that de Menil be allowed to choose the location and that his gift be dedicated to the memory of the late Dr. King. The work had no connection to King while it was in Washington -- it was installed before the civil rights leader's assassination -- but it possessed a monumental and tragic grandeur.

The burghers of Houston didn't mind Newman's sculpture, but they weren't crazy about bringing King into the equation. Okay, said de Menil, you don't have to mention King, but I want the installation to include a plaque bearing the biblical inscription, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." Since the sculpture -- and inscription -- would stand in front of City Hall, the politicians demurred.

Finally, in 1971, a year after Newman's death, "Broken Obelisk" was installed across from the Rothko Chapel, an interfaith space commissioned by de Menil and his wife, Dominique, and featuring the artwork of Mark Rothko.

Questions? Write answerman@washpost.com.

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