Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 11, 2018
Ellsworth Kelly Austin
Form into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin
Blanton Museum of Art, February 18–April 29, 2017
Installation view, Austin, Ellsworth Kelly, University of Texas at Austin, February 2018 (photograph © 2018 Ellsworth Kelly Foundation; provided by the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin)

Seldom is an artist offered the opportunity of creating a complete space. Seldom is an artist offered complete control of the architecture, lighting, and contents of a venue, or given complete control of the experience of the spectator. More seldom still does a public museum afford such an occasion to an artist, allowing for the creation of a truly permanent installation. With the realization of Austin, the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin accomplishes this rare feat, enabling Ellsworth Kelly (1923–2015) to join an elite list of artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries granted this unusual opportunity. Austin, as Kelly titled the realization of this project (originally conceived in the 1980s as a chapel for the vineyard of the collector Douglas Cramer outside Santa Barbara, California), takes its place alongside important permanent, artist-designed works in the form of a chapel, such as Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, France (opened in 1951), and the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas (opened in 1971). Further, it directly engages such earlier monuments in the history of art as Giotto’s Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua (completed in 1305), Michelangelo’s New Sacristy at San Lorenzo in Florence (1524–33), and Raphael’s Chigi Chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome (completed by Bernini in 1655).

While this is indeed elevated company, Austin clearly demonstrates that Ellsworth Kelly is most deserving of this rare privilege. The artist’s skills, interests, and engagement with art history run very deep; Austin is full of connections with art from the Middle Ages through work of the late twentieth century as well as various periods and themes from throughout his own career and oeuvre. Though Kelly himself was not religious, and Austin is not sectarian in purpose, the work is clearly conceived of in the form of a chapel. More specifically, it follows much of the canonical form of a traditional Roman Catholic chapel. It is cruciform in plan and barrel vaulted with a central groined vault at the crossing. The building is finished in a stark white stucco on the interior, recalling the medieval Romanesque churches of Europe that Kelly is known to have admired during his time in the army in the Second World War and his subsequent sojourn in France from 1948–54. The fourteen black-and-white marble reliefs that adorn the walls clearly reference the Stations of the Cross (the studies for them included in the accompanying exhibition even bear that title), and the totem sculpture in the apse performs the visual function of the high altar, with its tall cross as the visual focus of the entire composition. On a sunny day, the stained-glass windows project a moving geometry of colored light on the white surfaces of the walls, vault, and reliefs that would have impressed Abbot Suger himself. The black-and-white marble of the reliefs is without veins and is highly polished, making the reliefs appear almost as paintings, and, as abstract works in black and white, naturally recall Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross (1958–66) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Indeed, it is this taking on of one of the most central themes in the Western canon of art history that adds further power (and risk) to working in the form and tradition of Catholic art and architecture. Newman and Mark Rothko, whose fourteen dark panels in Houston also reference the Stations of the Cross, were both secular Jews; addressing these religious forms is thus an aesthetic engagement with history, meaning, and aspiration rather than an act of religious devotion. In all three cases, the results are nonetheless spiritual and they provoke the spectator’s contemplation.

For all of this engagement with art history, however, Austin belongs entirely to Ellsworth Kelly. Kelly, as one of the twentieth century’s premier colorists, owes a deep debt to Matisse in both his practice as a painter (with direct relations to Matisse’s later cutouts) and as a draughtsman (most clearly seen in his botanical drawings). Yet Austin bears little resemblance to Matisse’s Vence (and even less to Rothko’s chapel in Houston) beyond its ecclesiastical architectural typology. As the companion exhibition, Form into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, curated by Carter Foster, the Blanton Museum deputy director for curatorial affairs, makes quite evident, what would become Austin draws from a long history in Kelly’s practice and brings together many themes in his career. The exhibition breaks down relevant themes in Kelly’s oeuvre that relate to or become parts of the composition of Austin: the section titled “Black and White” becomes the Stations of the Cross; “Color Grid” becomes the windows on the south façade; an example of one of his totems appears in the apse; “Spectrum” becomes the “Tumbling Square” (east façade); and “Starburst” (west façade) stained-glass windows. One gallery of the museum is devoted to drawings and a model related to the original project planned for a private patron in the mid-1980s. This gallery also contains drawings and paintings that show further continuity between Austin and other elements in the artist’s practice. Drawings and paintings of monstrances echo the form of the pinwheel-shaped stained-glass window of the transept; the early drawing of the end walls of the exterior recall the shape and proportions of Kelly’s seminal work Kilometer Marker of 1949, now in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the entrance front windows clearly evoke the color-grid paintings. A study for the Stations of the Cross is also included. Happily for the Blanton Museum, sixty-seven works, some included in this exhibition, come to the museum as a gift from the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, making it not only the permanent home of Austin but also one of the foremost repositories of the artist’s work.

The state of Texas is a fitting home for Austin as it has become something of a mecca for large-scale, site-specific works, from Houston’s Rothko Chapel and James Turrell’s Live Oak Friends Meeting House to Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation and Judd Foundation buildings and installations in Marfa (which along with Judd’s writings form the backbone of more contemporary theory on permanence). Adding Austin and the accompanying gifts from the Kelly Foundation perhaps completes the Blanton Museum of Art’s transition from an important regional university museum to a first-tier international art museum. Over the past decade the museum has made important acquisitions including the Judy and Charles Tate bequest of modern and contemporary Latin American art, recruited excellent staff, and originated such important traveling exhibitions as 2014’s Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt. Indeed, it is perhaps the courage of the Blanton Museum for taking on the incredible stewardship commitment that a large permanent installation such as Austin entails that is most worthy of praise. In today’s climate, the type of capital campaign required for such an undertaking is rarely embarked on by museums for anything other than ambitious new museum spaces that are as much monuments to their benefactors as they are spaces for the exhibition of works of art. Such a large and open-ended commitment to a (then) living artist is virtually without precedent in recent decades. Ellsworth Kelly is certainly an artist worthy of such an opportunity. The resulting installation is one that will benefit the museum, the city of Austin (previously known mostly for its stature as a music city), and the art world at large. Further, it is a testament to the incredible good judgment of the Blanton Museum and its director Simone Wicha, the University of Texas at Austin, Houston gallerist Hiram Butler (who helped Kelly find a home for a project that had laid dormant since the late 1980s), the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, and the donors who made this undertaking possible.

Austin is clearly the type of installation that demands repeated viewing, as different times of day, seasonal changes in the path of the sun, and different weather conditions will completely alter the experience of the work. Natural light projects moving colors through the stained-glass windows around the interior, rendering the experience always dynamic. University of Texas students, faculty and staff, residents, and frequent visitors to Austin will have the privilege of experiencing Austin over time, something the work truly warrants. The realization of Austin is a fitting culmination to, and summation of, the artistic career of Ellsworth Kelly, though sadly, like Mark Rothko and his eponymous chapel or Raphael and the Chigi Chapel, the artist never lived to see the project’s completion.

Eric Michael Wolf
Head Librarian, Sotheby’s Institute of Art