By Laramie Hickey-Friedman

The conservation of a monumental modern or contemporary outdoor sculpture is, to put it mildly, a complicated undertaking. In addition to the standard conservation concerns of preserving artistic intent and sculptural integrity within a reasonable budget, one has to consider the structural stability and safety of the sculpture, the impact on the public of the long-term removal of the sculpture during treatment, and, of course, the unknowns that should be expected but may not be apparent until a project has moved from proposal into treatment. The treatments themselves are complex and can involve committees and the participation of others in order to achieve the goals of the conservation project.

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The recent conservation of the Rothko Chapel's Broken Obelisk, a monumental steel sculpture by Barnett Newman, illustrates these challenges. Broken Obelisk was envisioned and fabricated in the 1960s, when large outdoor metal sculptures were a rarity. The artist described his vision to his fabricators, Lippincott, with sketches, and they built the first two versions of the sculpture between 1964 and 1967 without blueprints. Much of the sculpture is pure geometry: a four-sided obelisk with a pyramidal point is inverted to touch point to point with a pyramid on the bottom. The result is a twenty-six-foot high sculpture of Cor-Ten steel (also known as weathering steel) that is seemingly balanced on the points of the pyramids.

The first two versions of the sculpture are at the Rothko Chapel in Houston and the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. The Houston Broken Obelisk was purchased by John and Dominique de Menil for the Rothko Chapel, a nondenominational sanctuary founded by the de Menils.

When a third version of the sculpture (now at the Museum of Modern Art, New York) was fabricated in 1969, Lippincott made modifications in the fabrication process in an effort to mitigate structural flaws in the sculpture's design; these changes included following strict specifications for fabrication with Cor-Ten steel that were not well known when the earlier versions of the sculpture were produced. Nevertheless, forty years since their fabrication, all three versions of the sculpture have had at least one conservation campaign to remedy problems with the sculpture's design. The Broken Obelisk at the Rothko Chapel has required two campaigns, in part because of its placement over a reflecting pool.


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The first conservation campaign for the Houston Broken Obelisk was undertaken between 1983 and 1984 to resolve inherent fabrication problems that were causing premature deterioration of the sculpture. That campaign included the structural modification of the pin system that joins the upper obelisk and lower pyramid, as well as replacement of the metal on the pyramidal point of the obelisk and on the walls of the pyramid; in addition, the footing was replaced with an I beam (Barnett Newman approved the replacement of the material on the pyramidal point and the pyramid prior to his death). The engineered pin system included the installation of a large rubber bag housed inside the pyramid that was intended to reduce air pressure inside the obelisk, which might build up during the heat of the day in Houston.

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In early 2003 the Houston sculpture underwent examination before the second conservation treatment campaign was planned. The sculpture had intermittent maintenance over the twenty years following the first campaign, and while there was minimal deterioration at the inherent weak point—the join between the top and the bottom—significant deterioration in other areas compromised the sculpture's stability. The location of the sculpture over the pool (in accordance with the artist's wishes) added to the sculpture's conservation problems. The main supporting I beam and attached bolts were severely corroded from submersion in chlorinated pool water, and engineers believed that structural failure was possible within four to seven years. The protective paint on the interior of the pyramid and the I beam had begun to fail, and corrosion was visible. During the first conservation campaign, a significant amount of expandable foam was sprayed into the top of the obelisk, and the result was that the interior walls of the obelisk were continually exposed to moisture; where the foam was in contact with the metal, water was held against the surface. This situation contributed to the accelerated deterioration of the obelisk from the inside out. Treatment was clearly necessary to stabilize the sculpture for its survival and for the safety of visitors.

The 2003–06 conservation campaign for the Houston Broken Obelisk was initiated to address structural issues with the heavily corroded I beam footing and spacers, to reapply a protective paint coating to the interior of the pyramid, and to renovate and update the reflecting pool. A committee was created because the coordination of the project was complex, and it was important to have input from all involved.

The initial committee for the conservation and restoration of Broken Obelisk included board members of the Rothko Chapel and the chief conservator, the sculpture conservator, and the chief curator from the Menil Collection (although Broken Obelisk belongs to the Rothko Chapel Foundation, the Menil Foundation and the conservators at the Menil are responsible for its maintenance and conservation). The committee grew to include Grounds from the Menil Foundation; Building and Security, and Finance from the Menil Collection; and the directors of both the Rothko Chapel and the Menil Collection. The Barnett Newman Foundation was also consulted on the project, both for its input on the artistic intent and because it provided significant financial support. Andrew Lins, chair of conservation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a specialist in metals conservation, including weathering steel, served as a consultant. Additionally, several outside contractors were brought in during the project.

The conservators' most important role on the committee was to communicate the structural needs of the sculpture, as well as artistic intent and aesthetic concerns. In this case, in which there were several treatment options that had to be weighed against artistic intent and the long-term stability of the sculpture, the conservators were responsible for conveying the implications of each option.

A major point of discussion regarding treatment involved replacement of original material—and balancing what was necessary with what was acceptable, with respect to artistic intent and aesthetics. The concerns of the committee included preserving the edge of the pyramid's skirt and the cascade top of the obelisk, both considered the marks of the artist, since they are unique on each sculpture. These were the initial issues when the committee saw that to provide any guarantee of even short-term preservation for the work, severely corroded areas would have to be removed and new material welded in their place.

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Public Impact

An important consideration during this conservation project was the impact that the extended removal of the sculpture for treatment would have on the public. Broken Obelisk is a well-known Houston icon, with an important political history (the work was originally dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.). Many people regularly visited the sculpture, and some individuals came daily.

The Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel were sensitive to the ways in which the project might affect the public, recognizing that even the temporary loss of a local landmark could create a public outcry. The committee issued press releases to announce the project, and a sign was erected at the Rothko Chapel to inform visitors about the project and the anticipated return of the sculpture. One local reporter followed the entire treatment, including the various deinstallation attempts. In all, it took three attempts with riggers and cranes, four months, and several collaborative consultations with contractors, engineers, and art handlers poring over twenty-year-old construction plans to finally free the frozen pin.

The committee felt that dramatic visual changes to the sculpture would be criticized even more than would be its temporary removal. This concern was a factor in making the priority of the treatment to stabilize the sculpture without compromising the patina and the overall aesthetic of the work. For this sculpture, which was severely deteriorated in some areas and stable in others, many treatment options were explored; unfortunately, there was no treatment proposal forthcoming that would guarantee the preservation of the sculpture if it remained in its current location. It was difficult to accept that a sculpture not much more than forty years old was so badly deteriorated that it required greatly invasive conservation treatment simply to slow the rate of deterioration—and that to guarantee its preservation, the work would have to be removed from the location where the artist sited it.

The severe deterioration of the metal necessitated considering the radical option of bringing the sculpture inside and possibly making an exhibition copy. While the decision to permanently remove the original sculpture from view was not implemented during this campaign, presentation of that option prompted many theoretical discussions about the impact that removal would have on the sculpture and the viewing public. It was clear to the committee that simply moving Broken Obelisk to a new location with a stable environment was not consistent either with the artist's intent or with public sentiment. That knowledge brought up the question of fabricating an exhibition copy, at first deemed unacceptable by the committee; gradually, however, the committee came to see that this approach was the only way to preserve the sculpture from further deterioration, as well as honor Barnett Newman's intention when he sited the sculpture over a body of water. Yet, ultimately, for the authenticity of the sculpture, approval for fabrication of an exhibition copy had to come from the Barnett Newman Foundation, and at the time of the project, it did not grant permission.

Decisions and Treatment

With the refabrication possibility put aside, two options were ultimately proposed to the committee for its approval. The committee was asked to weigh in on the treatment proposals because, even after nearly five months of examination and consultation, no treatment was identified that would guarantee long-term preservation of the sculpture without compromising the artistic intent. The project's decision making had gone beyond the technical aspects of conservation and required the broad expertise and experience of the committee to settle the philosophical issues related to preserving the sculpture's physicality, the artist's intent, and the emotional significance the work had acquired for the public.

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The final treatment proposal embraced was the one that allowed the foam to be removed from the interior of the obelisk. The severely pitted cascade top was removed and patched, the foam and corrosion on the interior of the obelisk were removed, and a marine-environment coating was applied to the interior of the obelisk. The top was then rewelded into place. In addition, a low-profile vent was designed, fabricated, and attached to the existing hole on the cascade top to provide air circulation inside the obelisk and, it is hoped, minimize condensation. Also, the footing on the pyramid was replaced with a stainless steel footing. All interior surfaces of the pyramid were recoated with a coating system manufactured for immersion or polluted coastal use.

Given the condition of the upper section of the obelisk and the extensive loss of material overall, this treatment was the best option short of reconstruction, and it will extend the life of the sculpture to some degree. Because of the extreme outdoor environment to which Broken Obelisk is exposed, the inner epoxy coating on the obelisk will have a limited term of effectiveness, after which the same type of damage that was seen extensively on the cascade top will begin to occur again. The sculpture will be monitored to measure the rate of material loss due to outside exposure and to check for any coating failure. Ideally, for the long-term preservation of the sculpture, it should be brought inside.

Often during this project, the physical preservation of the sculpture seemed in conflict with the preservation of artistic intent. In the end, the process for developing the conservation treatment allowed for a thorough examination of the complex and interlocking issues presented by the sculpture's conservation. The difficult but well-informed decisions made by the committee did ultimately address the immediate preservation needs of the sculpture, but with an understanding that compromises had to be made.

Laramie Hickey-Friedman received her master's degree in art conservation from the Winterthur Museum/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation in 2000; she was the sculpture conservator on the Broken Obelisk project. She currently resides in Lakewood, California.