Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Bring in the clones

Barnett Newman’s sculpture Broken Obelisk was made in an edition of three. There is one currently on display at MoMA in New York, one standing outside the Rothko Chapel in Houston, one in the Red Square at Seattle’s Washington University and one outside the New National Gallery in Berlin.

It all started with Art and Space’s Google Earth based website. As we had just been to the New National Gallery we thought we’d attach photos of all the outdoor sculptures for the Google Earth view. Simple enough, until we checked on Google Earth and found that the large Barnett Newman Broken Obelisk on the plaza outside the front entrance wasn’t there. Of course this is one of the intriguing things about Google Earth. There are often long (sometimes years – the building that burnt down across the road from us in Wellington more than two years ago still stands on GE) gaps in the record making a big difference between what you see and what is actually there. This prompted us to check where the three editioned Broken Obelisks were situated, and that led in turn to THE FOURTH OBELISK.

The Berlin Obelisk is in fact an “Exhibition Copy”. This is revealed by a steel plate stuck on the sculpture’s base. The plate tell us that this copy was made in 2005 by Lippincott Merrifield Roberts, the fabrication business that also make Claes Oldenburg and Coosie van Bruggen’s sculptures. A Barnett Newman signature is also etched into the plate but as Newman died in 1970 it’s as hard to work out what the signature means in terms of the status of this copy. In 2004 MoMA’s version of Broken Obelisk was on loan to Berlin's New National Gallery. Maybe when it had to return to New York to feature in MoMA’s new building, Berlin pleaded for their own copy and …. got one.

Inevitably, as you start looking around, you find more examples of these “exhibition copies”, copies that are made because the original is too fragile or too valuable to travel and institutionally authorised in ways we haven’t been able to work out. Let the viewer beware appears to be the museum profession’s caveat. In the Berlin case the exhibition copy isn’t even in an exhibition, but the thought that there should only be three of an edition of three Barnett Newmans on exhibition at any one time has obviously become old think. The animals gathered round and there, written on the board for all of them to see, were the words, "Three broken obelisks good, four broken obelisks better."

Images: Top, Broken Obelisk on view in Berlin. Bottom, rubbing of the metal label attached to the Berlin copy.