How Ellsworth Kelly’s Final, Immersive Work Ended Up in Austin, Texas
Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015 (Southeast view). © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin.
Ellsworth Kelly spent the second half of his twenties in Paris, enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and neatly sidestepping America’s growing fervor for Abstract Expressionism in the years following World War II. He spent much of his time alone (“I didn’t speak French very well, and I liked the silence,” he once said), often travelling through the countryside sketching centuries-old churches.
“It was a really formative period for him,” Carter Foster, a curator at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art, told Artsy. “He was fascinated by the Judeo-Christian traditions of art history more generally, but he particularly loved Romanesque and Cistercian medieval architecture.”
These early preoccupations would resurface in grand fashion during the last years of Kelly’s career, in his final and most monumental work: Austin, a 2,715-square-foot building constructed alongside the Blanton’s existing home on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. The work opens to the public on February 18th, the culmination of a multi-year effort by the museum to make the artist’s design a reality.
Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015 (Interior, facing south). © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin.
Although it is not a chapel—Kelly, an atheist, wanted all to feel welcome in the space—the structure’s cross-shaped blueprint and stained-glass windows clearly reference the tropes of religious architecture. “He was familiar with that context as the setting for art, the way you go into that sort of building and your eyes have to adjust to light,” Foster explained. “The way there’s art all around the walls—it’s a total art experience. I think that’s what he was trying to get at with Austin.”
Though its conceptual roots can be traced back to medieval France, a more concrete starting point for Austin is an uncompleted project commissioned by collector Douglas S. Cramer in the late 1980s. Cramer, a television producer for Dynasty and The Love Boat, had asked Kelly to design a chapel for his vineyard near Santa Barbara, California. The artist agreed, developing a series of detailed technical drawings that an architectural firm later transformed into blueprints. Kelly even made a few small-scale models. But the more work he put into the project, Blanton director Simone Wicha said, the more he realized he didn’t want it to be built on private land.
The plans resurfaced almost three decades later, when Houston dealer Hiram Butler began to drum up interest around the stalled project. Several institutions expressed interest, but in the end Kelly gifted the work to the Blanton. With Wicha’s help, the museum secured $23 million in funding for the construction and endowment.
Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015 (Southeast façade). © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin.
Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015 (West façade). © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin.
In all, it took five years for Austin to come to fruition. Kelly was involved in every aspect of the construction, from selecting the exterior stone (limestone from Spain) to deciding where the electrical outlets should go. The paint on the walls is even the same shade of white Kelly used in his personal studio in upstate New York. Wicha had a weekly check-in with the artist for the better part of 2015, concerning decisions large and small. Their last phone call was right before Christmas, when she received his approval for the water seepage system outside. It was the last box that needed to be checked, she says; days later, the 92-year-old artist died.
When I visited the site this past November, Austin was still surrounded by temporary fencing. The area was loud with construction noise, which melted away as we walked inside.
The first thing you notice is how high the ceilings are. From the outside, Austin is dwarfed by the Brutalist academic buildings that ring it. But the space seems to expand as you enter, said Wicha. “When I first walked in here, I was like ‘[Kelly] had the perfect sense of scale.’” Foster attributes the sensation, “to the light and the fact that the walls are white. It just expands upward, and there's a kind of soaring quality to the proportions.”
The interior features four major motifs from Kelly’s career. The first, the use of black and white, is represented in a series of marble panels along the walls closest to the entrance. Second is the totem, the name given to a series of elongated sculptural columns Kelly began making in 1972. Austin’s totem, 18 feet tall and made of redwood, stands in the rear where the pulpit might be if this were a church. The third motif is the color spectrum, represented by two windows resembling color wheels; and the fourth is the colored grid, reflected in the nine squares of rainbow-hued glass embedded in the building’s front wall.
Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015 (Interior, facing north). © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin.
The marble panels and the totem were still wrapped up in November to protect them during the final stages of construction, but the stained glass windows were visible in all their multicolored glory. Kelly spent a lot of time making sure these were right. “You can see the texture, that was important for him,” Wicha noted, pointing out the bubbles and waves in each glass panel. “We could have gone with a real high-tech glass, but this is a very traditional hand-blown glass.” It’s also double-paned to increase the intensity of the colors.
Austin’s four motifs are explored in more depth through an accompanying exhibition at the Blanton, curated by Foster. Foster actually knew Kelly long before he began working on this project. His right forearm features a tattoo designed by the artist—the only one in the world—composed of a series of four colored blocks, echoing in some ways the design of Austin’s stained-glass windows.
Foster finds those windows particularly compelling. “I think the most amazing aspect of it is the time-based quality,” he notes. “The way light is transmitted through those windows and the colors and the shapes they create on the walls constantly changes with the sun. And it’ll be so interesting to see what it looks like in the middle of summer, or what it looks like at 6 a.m. We don’t know exactly what this building is yet—I’m really eager to sit there and watch how it changes.”