First-Ever Ellsworth Kelly Building to Be Built at University of Texas

It was first commissioned, but never realized, from a private collector in 1986.


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Elllworth Kelly Austin (2015) (exterior rendering). Artist designed building with installation of colored glass windows, marble panels, and redwood totem. Photo: Courtesy the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin Texas.
Ellsworth Kelly Austin interior, Photo: Courtesy The Blanton Museum of Art
Ellsworth Kelly Austin interior. Photo: Courtesy The Blanton Museum of Art
Ellsworth Kelly Austin interior. Photo: Courtesy The Blanton Museum of Art
Ellsworth Kelly Austin interior, Totem Photo: Courtesy The Blanton Museum of Art

The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin announced that it will build and acquire Ellsworth Kelly’s first-ever building on its grounds. The stand-alone structure, which is titled Austin, will measure 73 by 60 feet and is meant to be “a space for contemplation,” according to a statement from the museum. The building will have 2,715 feet of space and feature a totemic wood sculpture, colored glass windows, and 14 black and white stone panels in marble, all designed by the artist. This project marks the first time that Kelly, known for his vibrantly colored geometric paintings, has ever worked with glass or marble.

“We are thrilled,” Blanton director Simone Wicha told artnet News via telephone about Austin, which will become part of the museum’s permanent collection. Noting that conversations about the project had been ongoing for the past two years, Wicha said it’s “a great privilege to share the vision of one of the greatest artists of our time.” About this project being Kelly’s first-ever building she said, “We were absolutely committed to ensuring what Ellsworth wanted in his vision was realized exactly as he wanted it to come out, while also recognizing the structure will be situated on the the public grounds of the university.” San Antonio-based architecture firm Overland Partners, run by a UT alumni, was hired as architect.

“This is a project that Ellsworth has held dear to his heart for a number years,” said Jack Shear, director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, speaking by telephone from upstate New York. “It’s a difficult project and a real commitment. I think the University of Texas campus is the perfect place for it, because of the light in Austin. The piece is very much about light. Ellsworth has been working on getting the colored glass just perfect.” Kelly, who is in his early 90s, is on oxygen and rarely travels, so much of the planning has been handled remotely says Shear. The artist also recently created a “spectrum curtain” for the new Frank Gehry-designed Louis Vuitton Foundation building in France.

Kelly selected Michael Mayer, of the famous Franz Meyer stained glass studio in Munich, to fabricate the colored windows, and California-based Peter Carlson will oversee fabrication of the redwood totem and stone panels inside the structure. Carlson has worked closely with Kelly for over 35 years.

Existing in Perpetuity in a Public Space

The project was initially conceived in 1986 for a private collector, but the work was never realized as “Kelly’s intention was always for it to exist in perpetuity in a public space,” according to Wicha.

Another reason why it made sense to have the work at the Blanton, says Wicha, is the “equally important opportunity” of being able to study the work, given the university’s distinguished faculty such as Richard Shiff, the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas. Shiff said in a release “the masterwork that Kelly has designed will become a jewel in his Texas crown, and an exciting addition to the Blanton Museum.”

Kelly has gifted the design concept for Austin to the Blanton as well as the building, totem sculpture, interior panels, and colored glass windows. The museum has launched a $15 million campaign to realize the project. To date, commitments have already totaled $7 million.

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