Ellsworth Kelly, an Atheist, Has Built a Transcendent Church for Art in Texas

The late artist's final project was three decades in the making.

Ellsworth Kelly, Austin (2015). Interior view, facing south. ©Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo courtesy of the Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin.

Ellsworth Kelly died in 2015, but his final work was unveiled only this past weekend. It is also likely the most ambitious work the American artist ever made: a 2,700-square-foot building loosely modeled after a Romanesque church on the grounds of the Blanton Museum in Austin, Texas.

“This is a game changer for this city and for Ellsworth Kelly, to have his most monumental work realized,” said Blanton director Simone Wicha. The museum raised $23 million for the project, which includes a $4 million endowment to conserve the work.

The Blanton has been developing the project since 2012, but it has actually been in the works for decades. Kelly originally intended to build the structure on the California vineyard of TV producer Douglas Cramer, who collected Kelly’s work and offered to commission it in the 1980s. But the artist ultimately decided the project was too important to him to place on private land, which could be sold—“and eventually did get sold,” according to Blanton curator Carter Foster.

The façade of Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin (2015). Photo by Rachel Corbett.

The artist explored other potential sites over the years—the Menil Collection and Rice University in Houston, for instance, and Catholic University in Washington, DC—but none of them stuck. “I had the impression that at some other places people had tried to be too involved in design decisions,” Wicha said. “Ellsworth couldn’t do this by himself, but it was important that he make the decisions.”

The Blanton promised to run every last detail by the artist, who was then approaching 90, all the way down to the grout color. Kelly weighed in on the arrangement of each of the façade’s limestone blocks, the location and font of his signature, the color and thickness of the grout, and even the shape of the holes in the drainage grates. (He chose squares over circles.) Since the museum ultimately completed the project after the artist’s death, “I didn’t want anyone thinking that the museum made decisions that weren’t his,” Wicha said.

Kelly first became fascinated by the architecture of Romanesque and Cistercian cathedrals while stationed Paris during World War II. During the nearly seven years he remained in France, he sketched the cathedrals at Chartres and Notre Dame, showing particular interest in the interstitial spaces and the geometries of the stonework and monstrances. (A number of these early drawings are included in the exhibition “Form Into Spirit,” on view at the Blanton through April 29.)

The starburst “monstrance” in Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin. Photo by Rachel Corbett.

Kelly was a lifelong atheist. When he set out to create his own version of a chapel, he omitted explicit religious imagery and chose not to have it consecrated. In the end, Kelly’s Austin—the prosaic title he gave the work—is a chapel-like form stripped of any holy narrative. 

The building’s two double-barrel vaults, which intersect in the center, mimic Romanesque and Cistercian architecture, giving viewers a similarly “processional aspect to the way you’re experiencing it,” Foster said, “like if you go into a chapel or church in Europe it’s usually filled with side chapels but you’re directed to an altar with a cross at the end, and you meander around the sides.”

In this case, one walks in and is confronted with an 18-foot-tall redwood totem, a gently curved form Kelly often returned to in his sculpture. On the wall to the right are 14 tilted squares of stained glass arranged in the formation of a traditional rose window. But instead of depicting scenes from Jesus Christ’s life in the glass, they transmit only gem-toned colors. Kelly selected each color in a painterly fashion, by mixing four sheets of glass in varying hues, and having a glass blower in Munich combine them into a final shade.

On the opposite wall, a starburst-shaped monstrance in a similar spectrum of colors appears, and on the entrance wall is a grid of nine colored squares. There is even a series of works referencing the Stations of the Cross, though one wouldn’t recognize the abstract panels of black and white marble as such if it weren’t for the title. (Barnett Newman also famously made an abstracted series based on the Stations of the Cross using his signature vertical “zips.”)

Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin (2015). View of three of the marble Stations of the Cross panels. ©Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo courtesy of the Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin.

I visited on two cloudy days during the opening this past weekend. The limited light caused a rainbow aura to emanate directly around the circular formations, but the colors didn’t reflect onto the floor or walls, as photos taken on sunnier days show. Although some will inevitably see the work in relationship to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, the feeling is dramatically different, namely in its use of light, which contrasts sharply with the dark, somber paintings Rothko hung in the building he designed with architect Philip Johnson.

By contrast, Kelly wanted “a space of calm and light,” Foster said. Given light’s long association with religion, the sunlit glass does convey a sense of divinity, but the space feels no more like a house of god than it does a place of worship to the sun, or nature. 

Jack Shear, Kelly’s longtime partner and the head of his foundation, pointed out during a panel discussion at the museum on Saturday that there is an element of Kelly’s studio in the building—in the sense of a “studio as a place of solitude,” he said. In this way, Austin is both a sanctuary for the everyday visitor and a temple to the near century-long devotion to color and form that was Kelly’s own career.

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