Arts & Entertainment

Unveiling Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Austin’

The debut of a destination showpiece on the University of Texas campus marks a turning point for the Capital City.

Ellsworth Kelly Austin
Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, on the University of Texas at Austin campus. Photographs by Nick Simonite

The newest addition to the Blanton Museum of Art’s permanent collection, a walk-in kaleidoscope of a building designed by the late American abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly, has electrified Austin’s art community. But there’s one problem: no one’s sure exactly what to call it. The Blanton staff refers to it by its official title, Austin, but that becomes tricky in casual conversation: Have you visited Austin yet?

Perhaps someday, Blanton authorities hope, the global art cognoscenti will think of Kelly’s building on the University of Texas at Austin campus as synonymous with the city. But for now it seems likely that the work will be better known, despite its secular vision, as “the Kelly Chapel.” This is thanks in part to its closest Texas comparison, Houston’s Rothko Chapel. Both are small, permanent, stand-alone buildings conceived and designed along religious themes. Like his fellow New York painter Kelly, Mark Rothko was alive for site selection and planning but died—having never visited Texas—before the opening of his monumental work. And if all goes well for Austin (metropolis and artwork alike), the February 18 unveiling—like the Rothko Chapel’s opening, in 1971—will give a significant boost to its host city’s cultural stature.

“The fact that we were able to accomplish this here, now, is a reflection of the growth of the city,” says Blanton director Simone Wicha. “There’s a sense of excellence that is building, and I think that reflects what’s happening with Austin.”

Ellsworth Kelly Austin
The interior of Austin.
One of three sets of stained-glass windows in the building.
Left: The interior of Austin.
Top: One of three sets of stained-glass windows in the building.

Kelly, who died in 2015 at age 92, was a master of geometry and color, finding inspiration in the shapes and hues that underlie our obvious visual perceptions, like a shadow cast on a wall or the curve of a hill. “His art is really one of distillation,” explains Carter Foster, the deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Blanton and Kelly’s friend for almost two decades. “He had hyperacute vision. He saw things that other people didn’t see or didn’t notice.”

Kelly’s rainbow-bright Austin sanctuary contains elements familiar to a religious building, but its creator took some liberties. Three sets of geometric stained-glass windows splash color across the building’s cruciform layout. A totemic sculpture stands roughly where the altar ought to be. On the walls, fourteen black-and-white marble panels depict abstract interpretations of Christ’s road to Golgotha. Austin, according to Foster, is a study in devotional architecture that, like its creator, avoids specific religious commitment. “It’s a chapel in form but not in function,” Foster explains. “He’s referring to art history as much as any ideology.”

Kelly first designed the building in the mid-eighties but broke off attempts to build it multiple times. Eventually the artist set specific requirements for the building that would, in part, dictate its future home: it would be considered a work of art, not a religious building; it had to be accessible to the public; and it needed protection against future removal. The Blanton satisfied all of Kelly’s major concerns: UT has no religious affiliation; the university setting encourages public engagement; and the Blanton has well-defined policies for conserving artworks in its permanent collection. And with the hiring of Carter, who comes complete with a one-of-a-kind forearm tattoo designed by Kelly (“It’s not for sale,” he jokes), the museum has taken a step forward as a center for the study of Kelly’s legacy.

In December 2012, Wicha was approached by local art patrons Jeanne and Mickey Klein about a possible partnership with Kelly. The project offers obvious opportunities to make a splash in the international art world and, in the process, link Austin with other major artworks in the region. Foster refers to artist-designed buildings like Kelly’s as gesamtkunstwerk, or “all-embracing art forms.” Henri Matisse’s Rosary Chapel, in southeastern France, can be considered the progenitor of this format, but two of its most important examples stand in Texas: Rothko’s, in Houston, and Robert Irwin’s untitled (dawn to dusk), in Marfa. (James Turrell, who designed spaces in Houston and Austin, and who declared his erstwhile Dallas installation “destroyed” by the glare of the 42-story Museum Tower, is also part of this conversation.) Kelly’s building, then, could be the art-world equivalent of a dusty Old West town finally getting its railroad. Fans of this unique art form could someday follow a three-stop itinerary across the state that might even bypass Dallas and San Antonio—for Austin.

When the Kleins came to Wicha she was eager but cautious. Although the Blanton contracted with Kelly during an upswing in both its institutional history and Austin’s prosperity, recent decades had been rocky for local high-end art institutions: attempts to build a downtown Austin museum of art had failed, and plans for a landmark Blanton main building designed by postmodern architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron were abandoned.

By pursuing Kelly’s chapel-like building, Wicha knew she had the chance to redefine the outlook of both the city and the museum. But she also knew she risked adding another entry to a catalog of failures. “I didn’t want to take this museum through something and not have it realized,” Wicha says. “But I also understood that being able to realize something like this would be monumental for the museum, for the campus, and for the city. Truly, this changes the narrative.”

Illustration by Christopher DeLorenzo

Je Ne Sais Quoi

Although Austin represents Ellsworth Kelly’s dedication to the abstract, its conceptual origins can be traced to his time spent in France studying the country’s monuments and art.

Just what narrative is being changed, and if it needed changing in the first place, depends on individual visions of and for Austin. Austinites might reflexively insist that they don’t want their city to become another Houston or Dallas, but there has been no shortage of enthusiastic Instagram posts marking recent ambitious urban designs, like the glittering Central Library. And members of Austin’s visual arts scene have a similar sense that big-city endeavors are finally materializing. In recent years, the downtown Contemporary Austin museum space has brought in shows from au courant out-of-town artists—including Rodney McMillian, the recipient of the museum’s new and very generous Suzanne Deal Booth Art Prize—as well as public art like Ai Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles, currently situated on the downtown lakefront. Meanwhile, the Blanton has executed a well-received rehang of its permanent collection.

But as Austin’s top art institutions are improving, local artists and DIY exhibition spaces are increasingly being priced out. A 2017 year-end roundup of exhibitions from local online art magazine Sightlines reads like a eulogy; seven of eight spaces listed were likely to close or relocate soon due to rising rents.

Some of those at risk for displacement, like Chris Cowden, the longtime executive director of the campus-area gallery Women & Their Work, express concern that as Austin’s art world becomes more international in outlook, local art will be left out of the conversation. “Forever, if you spoke about the visual arts in Austin at all, you spoke about the number of artists that were here, the number of arts organizations—and, oh yeah, that little house on the river, Laguna Gloria, and that small space upstairs in the UT art department,” Cowden says, referring to two spaces that grew into the current Contemporary Austin and Blanton museums, respectively. “Since that time, we’ve gotten two museums, which are really vibrant, ambitious, and successful. But at the moment when that has been achieved, the bottom is really falling out.” 

Since neither the Blanton nor the Contemporary focuses on local artists, the contraction of the bottom end of the Austin visual arts scene translates to fewer venues for local talent to showcase their work. This compounds a key, long-standing obstacle to building an art career in Austin: access to collectors. “A lot of good artists come through, and then they leave,” says Sylvia Orozco, the leader of the Mexic-Arte Museum, on Congress Avenue. “But it’s not because rent was too high. I think they leave to find markets where you can sell your art.”

Orozco believes that, though the development of major institutions like the Blanton and the Contemporary is a net positive for the entire Austin art community, there needs to be more collaboration between larger museums and smaller venues. “We’re the ones that have to create the market,” she says. “We’re all in it together.”

Annette Carlozzi, a former Blanton curator who is now writing a book on the Texas art scene for the University of Texas Press, takes the optimist’s perspective, arguing that the necessary conditions for an Austin art market are now beginning to emerge, if tenuously. She points to an explosion of new critical writing about Austin art and the first sightings of real collectors at the higher-end galleries in town.

“Whether they have a second or a third home here, or they’ve just moved here in retirement, or they came here because of the tech industry, they’re here now, and they’re looking to buy art,” Carlozzi says, mentioning the Kleins, top donors for Austin, who arrived in Austin from Houston in the mid-aughts. “It looks like there’s a foundation beginning to be formed.”

Ellsworth Kelly Austin
Another of three sets of stained-glass windows in the building.

Although Blanton-associated observers like Wicha, Foster, and Carlozzi anticipate the Kelly piece’s impact on the international art world, the deepest resonance of Austin will lie in how locals observe it and bond with it over time. “It’s not an ornamented building,” Foster says. “There’s not much going on. What really goes on is the way it changes with the changing light conditions and the seasons. The shadows, and particularly the way the light comes in through the stained glass—that’s going to be revealed to us over the next year, which is exciting and kind of amazing. It is like a sundial, almost. The experience of it is deeply tied to nature and the universe.”

As Rothko’s serious, meditative engagement with black oils inadvertently reflects something of Houston’s present-day cultural preoccupations, will Kelly’s weightless rainbows and iPhone-sleek white surfaces come to epitomize something about what Austin is or wants to be? Will the building eventually be viewed as a magnet for a growing, multidimensional art community or as a memorial marker for the old, weird Austin scene?

It’s impossible to say with any certainty what the long-term meaning or impact of the piece will be. That’s the thrill of the present unveiling. But already Austin signals one important change: the city’s newfound capacity to make sophisticated, open-ended investments in the arts.

“The opening of the Kelly building is a real cultural achievement,” Carlozzi says. “It is a destination to which people will come from around the world. I just went to the new Austin Central Library. It was so exciting to see. My husband and I were just saying, ‘This is the Austin that Austin has wanted to be for so long.’ You finally can see it in one place, and you can feel it and be part of it. The Kelly building is so, so different in character. But the ambition of both is thrilling and astonishing, and I don’t think it could have happened—obviously didn’t happen—in Austin until this moment.” 


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