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A Lasting Legacy
By Tobin Levy | Photo: Building photos Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art | Ellsworth Kelly photo by Jerry Rife via ZUMA | Exhibition Photos courtesy of Ellsworth Kelly Studio | April 4, 2018
Ellsworth Kelly’s most monumental work opens its chapel-like doors at the Blanton Museum of Art.
Following the death of Ellsworth Kelly in 2015, the director of the Museum of Modern Art confounded more than a few mourners when recalling his last visit with the artist. “He said all Ellsworth wanted to do was talk about Austin,” recalls Jeanne Klein, a prominent art collector and friend of Kelly’s. She attended the funeral with her husband, Mickey. “I looked around and realized half of these people don’t know what he’s talking about! Then I thought, they will one day.”
Kelly, who died at 92, had never been to Austin. In his last years, treatment for a lung condition required oxygen tanks that made travel more trouble than it was worth. However, health issues didn’t impede the realization of what would be his final and only freestanding work: a building Kelly designed and named “Austin,” after the city where it would be located, next to the University of Texas’ Blanton Museum of Art. Klein, a member of the Blanton National Leadership Board, had helped set the ball in motion.
The building’s public unveiling Feb. 18 coincided with the opening of Form Into Spirit, a temporary exhibition exploring four motifs—spectrum, black and white, color grid and totem—that Kelly had returned to throughout his career. The exhibition also addresses the ways Kelly’s travels in France, studying the country’s artistic traditions, influenced the building’s design. “My hope is that if you go into ‘Austin’ the building, and then you go to the exhibition, or vice versa, it’s clear how they relate to each other,” says Carter Foster, the museum’s deputy director for curatorial affairs. Though the show closes April 29, “Austin” is now part of Blanton’s permanent collection.
“It could not have happened without Simone,” stresses Klein, referring to Blanton Director Simone Wicha. “She really was the force that made this happen.” Wicha was the conduit between the UT facilities, donors, builders, architects and artist.
“[Worried about Kelly’s health,] we decided to flip the process and make and document all the decisions that maybe in a regular construction project you’d do later on,” says Wicha, who worked closely with the artist. “I didn’t want any [aesthetic] question left unanswered.” That included everything from selecting materials to incorporating an air-conditioning unit without it detracting from the desired effect. It was an arduous six-month process. Kelly signed off on the last detail two weeks before his death.
“He didn’t live to see it finished, but having control of every single decision, I think he knew exactly what it was going to look like,” says Klein.
Kelly created the original design in 1987. When representatives of the Blanton approached philanthropist Suzanne Deal Booth about supporting “Austin,” unbeknownst to them, she’d already seen it. Booth, also a preservation activist and art historian, had been friends with Kelly and his husband, Jack Shear, for nearly 15 years and visited them at their home in Spencertown, N.Y. “The model was in Ellsworth’s studio,” she says. “I’d remembered asking him about it. The only building he had ever designed was just sitting there…”
There had been offers over the years from individuals and institutions, but none were the right fit, including a Catholic university hoping to build it as a religious space. It was important to Kelly, an avid museumgoer, that the space be available to the public, that he have full aesthetic control and that it be nondenominational. Though the design was informed, in part, by Romanesque cathedrals and Cistercian chapels, it was the simplicity of the buildings, the expression of space and light, not the programming, that he internalized and wanted to achieve. “For Ellsworth, the right institution for the project would work with him and understand this,” says Shear, now the president of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. “I think the Blanton has done that. This is a work of art; it’s his ideas put in a concrete form. It is a culmination of Ellsworth’s life and his vision.”
“Kelly was not a religious man, but he did believe in the spiritual component of art,” says Foster. “What’s amazing to me is that Ellsworth Kelly took the experience of visiting a church or a chapel, the way you actually experience that space, and translated that into a completely abstract formal language.”
The 2,715-square-foot cruciform-shaped limestone structure sits atop a swath of green adjacent to the Blanton. All but one of the exterior walls, which call to mind Kelly’s curved planar canvases, feature geometric, meticulously placed stained-glass windows. The transept’s weighty exterior offers the “sense of fixity” that Kelly, in a 1996 interview, said most people want from art: “In a sense, what I’ve tried to capture is the reality of flux, to keep art an open, incomplete situation, to get at the rapture of seeing.” The building’s interior, though constructed 20 years after that statement, does just that. The ceiling, vaulted in one area, barreled in others, feels invigoratingly out of reach. Fourteen black-and-white marble panels hang on the white walls, and a sleek totemic wood sculpture towers and casts shadows at the far end of the space. Form and color are methodically delineated and rendered tenuous by the constant changes in natural light.
For the city of Austin, the building is a destination akin in significance to Houston’s Rothko Chapel. Although Kelly was unable to see the completed project, he was able to finalize the design for this defining work, one that incorporates a lifetime of creations, ideas and experiences. “As an artist, the process is what matters most,” Shear says. “It is the thing that you remember.”