Sacred Space: Look Inside Ellsworth Kelly’s Last Work at the Blanton Museum

In 2015, renowned artist Ellsworth Kelly gifted his most monumental work to the Blanton Museum of Art. The building is a chapel of joy and contemplation — and a remembrance of one of the great American artists of the 20th century.

By Marisa Charpentier | Photographs by Casey Dunn

The entrance to ‘Austin.’

It is tempting to compare the newest building on campus to something out of The Wizard of Oz. It sits at the south end of Speedway’s newly installed yellow brick road. The stained-glass windows send enchanting reflections of greens, blues, and reds across its walls and floors. And, though it’s just 2,715 square feet, it is utterly awe-inspiring.

For the past two years, the construction of Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin has been the object of much curiosity. As the stone curves of the structure began to take shape, students paused to snap photos or pulled up on bikes to peek through spaces in the temporary fence surrounding the work zone. Some relaxed on the nearby grass as construction workers hammered and drilled away. It’s no wonder the structure attracts attention. From an aerial view, the white stone building is shaped like a cross with rounded edges, a stark contrast to the faded brown brick of its blocky neighbor, Jester Dormitory. The walls curve seamlessly into the roof. The front contains a nine-square grid of colorful mouth-blown glass windows, while a circle of tumbling squares adorns one side and a starburst pattern the other. The entrance faces downtown, as if to say to the city: come visit.

Kelly, one of the most vaunted abstract artists of the 20th century, gifted the design concept for Austin to the Blanton Museum of Art in 2015. He was known for his brightly colored, irregularly shaped canvases and his flat sculptures, so this free-standing building would be idiosyncratic to the rest of his oeuvre. He initially designed the chapel back in 1986 for a private owner, but for a variety of reasons, the project never made it past the modeling or design phases. Still, over the years, Kelly kept searching for the right home for it. It was a big project, one that if built, would be Kelly’s most monumental work — it required a strong partnership to see it realized.

In 2012, Kelly was 89 years old and still hadn’t found that perfect union. That’s when he ended up in the same place as Hiram Butler, BA ’76, an art dealer in Houston. Butler was walking out of a memorial service for a friend in New York City when he bumped into Kelly, whom he’d first learned about in a UT class in the early ’70s and had met later in his art career through a colleague. That day, Kelly mentioned the project to him, and Butler went on to share the idea with Landmarks, the university’s public arts program. With the help of Kelly and several architects, he put together a proposal. Landmarks, though, is a small operation. The Blanton had more resources. When Blanton board members Jeanne Klein, BS ’67, Life Member, and Michael Klein, BS ’58, JD ’63, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, asked that the Blanton take on the project, certain practical issues were resolved. And the museum was more than welcoming to the project. “It would be transformative for the Blanton,” Michael Klein remembers thinking. “It would elevate us to one of the most important — if not the most important — university art museums in the country.”

UT felt like a perfect fit for the artist’s masterpiece — but getting approval for a new building on university grounds was not a simple task, nor was finding the funding for what would turn out to be a $23 million project. After the project was introduced to her in 2012, Blanton Director Simone Wicha, BS ’96, spearheaded the work, navigating university channels to get approval for the building and establishing a fundraising campaign. UT alumni like the Kleins, Sally and Tom Dunning, BBA ’65, Life Member, Judy, BS ’73, and Charles, BBA ’68, Tate, Life Members, and the Blanton family donated to the project. Later, supporters of Kelly’s work like Charles Schwab and Emily Rauh Pulitzer also contributed funds.

By January 2015, it was official. The Blanton would construct Kelly’s chapel. Nearly 30 years after its conception, Kelly was white-haired. His electric blue eyes peeked through his ever-present glasses, and oxygen tubes were strapped under his nose more often than not. He decided to name the chapel Austin in honor of the city in which it would reside, an act of reverence he was known for throughout his career. A series of bright canvases commissioned by the Art Institute of Chicago, for example, he named The Chicago Panels, and his four long and skinny canvases in the main lobby of the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas are entitled Blue Green Black Red: The Dallas Panels.

In December that year, just two months after groundbreaking had begun, Kelly died at 92, making Austin his final work. Two years later, on Feb. 18, Austin will open its doors to the public. “It is a beautiful work of art,” Wicha says. “I think if [UT] hadn’t gotten it done, this world wouldn’t have it.

As I walk up to the limestone structure on a sunny January afternoon everything seems to fall away. The buzz of students advertising clubs and fundraisers along Speedway diminishes. The foot traffic dwindles down to just me and a few others, some of whom stop to eat lunch on the grassy hill overlooking Austin. I hear little more than wind rustling through tree branches and the faint sound of cars driving down MLK Boulevard. And when I step inside Austin, I hear practically nothing at all. I’m almost scared to move, knowing my shoes against the black granite floors will break the silence, sending echoes throughout the 26-foot-tall space. When I finally take a step forward, I’m engulfed by a green glow, the result of sunlight streaming through one of the colored glass windows. When I look up at the curved ceiling, I feel exactly as I have felt in the few European churches and cathedrals I have visited: so very small.

Being inside Kelly’s Austin is like being inside a chapel with all of the ornamentation stripped away. The stained-glass windows mirror patterns found in churches but bear no intricate designs. The 14 panels that line the walls are titled “Stations of the Cross,” but boast black-and-white abstract designs instead of religious images. The space has a nave, or central aisle, but it leads to a thin, 18-foot-tall totem rather than an altar. Everything about this place screams Ellsworth Kelly: the bright colors, the geometric shapes, the Romanesque influences. The joy. Not only is it the artist’s only freestanding building, it is the culmination of 70 years of artistry.

Kelly was born in Newburgh, New York, in 1923, and grew up in New Jersey. As a young boy, he first developed his passion for color and form while bird-watching with his grandmother at the nearby Oradell Reservoir. His parents, an insurance executive and former schoolteacher, didn’t encourage him to become an artist and only allowed him to enroll in the Pratt Institute of New York because the school provided commercial training. After three semesters, Kelly left to join the military in 1943, requesting a position in the 603rd Camouflage Engineers Battalion, which recruited many artists, since its main mission dealt with camouflage. As part of this deception unit, known as the Ghost Army, Kelly and others would imperfectly camouflage inflatable tanks, cannons, trucks, and airplanes to mislead Axis forces. His time in the Army took him across Europe to England, Belgium, France, Germany, and Luxembourg, where he sketched the medieval architecture that caught his eye. After the war, the GI Bill enabled him to attain more schooling at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but he didn’t enjoy the stuffy atmosphere. His classes were traditional; he wanted something different, colorful. So, in 1948, he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It was in that city that the style he’s known for today truly began to form.

He visited artists like Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi. He met with Alice B. Toklas, the life partner of Gertrude Stein. Monet’s stepson showed him the great artist’s paintings. He paid Alberto Giacometti a visit at his studio. He had a brief encounter with Picasso, whose influence hovered over Paris. The city and its silhouette, though, had just as much of an impact on the artist. Sitting in cafes and walking through museums, he noticed windows attracted his attention. He admired their shapes and proportions and began re-creating them in his work, like Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris (1949), a painting of a rectangular, black-framed window. “He comes up with this idea of wanting to make paintings objects that sit in real space,” says Carter Foster, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Blanton and Kelly’s longtime friend. “He kept exploring that idea for the rest of his career in many ways. His mature art gelled in that early moment.”

During his time in France, though, he only sold one painting. By 1954, he was back in New York, still honing his style but garnering little recognition — or rent money. He continued to draw on shapes he found in the world around him. Though his paintings were abstract, they were very much rooted in reality. “He might notice the angle of a shadow on the wall and create a work based on that,” Fosler says. He employed bold shapes and bright colors. His paintings were not pictures themselves but part of a larger canvas. “To hell with pictures,” Kelly once wrote in a letter to avant-garde composer John Cage. “They should be the wall.”

By 1960, the Museum of Modern Art acquired one of his paintings. His paintings, sculptures, and prints began appearing in museums, and he rose through the ranks of the great American artists of the 20th century. Though he didn’t fit neatly into a particular field, he influenced art movements like minimalism; Color Field, an abstract style characterized by flat expanses of a single color; and hard-edge painting, or paintings that have stark transitions from one color to the next. In 1986, Douglas Cramer, producer of television shows like Dynasty and The Love Boat, asked Kelly to construct a chapel on his vineyard in Santa Barbara. Kelly drew up the designs and sent them to an architecture firm. The plans were all set, but for various reasons the building never came to fruition. “I think Ellsworth was concerned about it being on private land and what would happen if the land got sold,” Foster says. The land was eventually sold, and the chapel remained nothing more than blueprints and designs.

Blanton Director Simone Wicha and Ellsworth Kelly in front of a model of ‘Austin.’

It was nearly three decades later that Kelly finally found the right place for his chapel. He had several requirements: that the building be publicly accessible and that it be placed in a sunny climate, because light is a crucial part of the piece. The installation almost acts as a sundial. The colorful windows transmit light onto the building’s interior at different angles and intensities throughout the day as sunlight shifts. He also did not want the space to be a purely religious one; Kelly was an atheist. “I feel this earth is enough,” he said in a 2011 interview with Gwyneth Paltrow. “It’s so fantastic. Look up at the sun. It’s millions of years old and still to be millions more. And there are all the spaces we can never see.” Though Austin mirrors the look of a chapel, Kelly wanted the space to be first and foremost a work of art. “He was deeply moved by going to churches himself and seeing the art in them but more in an aesthetic sense than anything else,” Foster says. “He believed in the power of beauty and aesthetics to lift you higher, and I think that’s what he wanted for people when they go in.”

UT met all the requirements for Kelly, and the Blanton wanted to get the project done. But time was running out. Years of being around paint fumes left Kelly with emphysema, a lung condition that makes it difficult to breathe. As director, Wicha knew she had to get the support she needed quickly. “It took me getting a lot of people to trust that this was worth taking a risk on,” Wicha says. “A lot of people had faith in us getting it done, and a lot of people understood the significance.” In addition to having the support of former Longhorns and Kelly collectors, then-president Bill Powers was also on board. Powers committed $1 million from the Longhorn Network for an endowment for the care, conservation, and study of Austin. Each year, proceeds from the network are split between athletics and academics. The main use of the academic portion has been used to create a lasting impact on UT, like adding new department chairs. Powers says he thought that Kelly’s piece would have a similar long-term impact.

“Whatever people major in, they can always see the art on campus,” Powers says. “For some, going to the Blanton is their first exposure to art. Ellsworth Kelly’s installation invites them to have an appreciation and understanding of the arts.”

It was important to the Blanton that the project be exactly what the artist wanted it to be, but because of his condition, Kelly wasn’t able to travel between his home in Spencertown, New York, and Austin. Instead, Wicha and others traveled back and forth to Kelly’s studio, and Jack Shear, Kelly’s husband and director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, worked closely on the project, traveling to Austin in Kelly’s place.

There were numerous challenges, since the installation is made up of many separate parts. The glass windows were completed by the famous Franz Mayer stained-glass studio in Munich. They feature a spectrum of colors, from light to dark and back, a technique Kelly had been using since the ’50s. Materials for the 14 black-and-white stone panels were sourced from a quarry in Carrera, Italy, where Michelangelo got his marble, and from Belgium. In the apse stands another signature Kelly creation: an 18-foot redwood totem, the wood for which was first logged in the 19th century and then salvaged for this project from a riverbed. Materials for the wooden front door didn’t have to travel far — it is made from native Texas live oak from the site of Dell Medical School.

During one of Wicha’s visits to his studio, Kelly turned to her, his oxygen tank — or his “tail” as he referred to it — beside him. He admitted he was worried he’d created something that would be too difficult to build. The windows were close together, and he feared there wasn’t enough support to hold them up. “I told him, ‘I promise you it’s going to work,’” Wicha says. “‘I promise we’ll get this done.’ He just grabbed my hand, gave me the biggest smile, and looked at me with sheer joy.”

The groundbreaking took place on Oct. 31, 2015, but Kelly wasn’t able to make the trip. Throughout the planning process, Kelly kept a book that chronicled all of his decisions for the project. “We had this process where we’d send up information, and I’d call or visit and give [his] feedback to the team,” Wicha says. In December 2015, just before the holidays, she had her last phone call with Kelly. She told him the museum had all of his approvals. The artist’s concept book was complete. Kelly died just eight days later.

When Foster looks back on his relationship with Kelly, he remembers how they could talk about everything from family to art history and the latest exhibitions they had seen. He says Kelly could pull out drawings he had made in the ’50s and recall every detail about them. The two met through mutual friends in the late ’90s, and whenever Foster would visit his studio — a 15,000-square-foot space designed for him by architect Richard Gluckman — he immediately went to see what Kelly was working on. The studio had no windows, only skylights, so that his walls — his canvases — were not interrupted.

“I would go there, and he would have six or seven new paintings from the last time I was there,” Foster says. “That was always very impressive to me.” Even after he was diagnosed with a permanent lung disease, Kelly continued working, though he needed to wear a mask while painting. Kelly once designed a tattoo for Foster, a collage of colorful squares on his right forearm. After Foster got the tattoo, Kelly liked it so much, he considered it one of his works of art and gave it an inventory number. “It’s wonderful to carry a piece of him around with me,” Foster says.

On a visit to Spencertown, Wicha and others working on the project ate dinner with Kelly at his home, a white clapboard farmhouse built circa 1815. He sat at the table for hours, talking and drinking wine. “He clearly never stopped working and thinking,” Wicha says. “You could tell this project meant a lot to him.” Sitting with her in an office on the third floor of the Blanton, I can tell it meant a lot to Wicha, too. A framed photo of her and Kelly beside a model of Austin sits next to us. In the photo, Kelly is smiling wide. It was taken just after Wicha made the promise that she would do everything she could to get the project done. It was a long, complicated process, but for Wicha, being able to help realize the artist’s swan song was a labor of love. “It has been the most meaningful thing I have ever done,” she says.

For those who knew him and those who had the chance to work with him on this project, Austin is a place of commemoration. “The installation will be world-renowned,” Powers says. “People will come from Europe to see it, but for those of us who were involved and got to spend time with Ellsworth Kelly … going into Austin will be a remembrance of a great human being.”

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