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Art Review: Ellsworth Kelly’s Monument to Joy

Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, the only building he ever designed, is a luminous high-art temple.

The Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2018

Inside Ellsworth Kelly's Austin on the University of Texas campus Photo: Ellsworth Kelly Foundation/Blant Austin, Texas

Saving the best for last is fine in fireworks, but it can feel bittersweet in art. Ellsworth Kelly did not live to see the completion of Austin, the only building he ever designed. It opened to the public last month, two years after his death, on the University of Texas campus. Nevertheless, with the help of museum officials, donors and not a little Texas grit, Kelly has left Austin, the city, with a beautifully realized high-art temple—one that can only enhance his stature in the pantheon of modern artists. A sleek, whisper-gray structure punctuated by geometric arrangements of stained glass, Austin has drawn fitting comparisons to the Rothko Chapel, in Houston, and Henri Matisse’s Rosary Chapel, in Vence, France. Both double as religious and artistic spaces. However, Kelly insisted that his creation not be associated with religion.

The east facade of the 2,715-square-foot building Photo: Ellsworth Kelly Foundation/Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

The original idea took shape in the 1980s, when TV producer Douglas Cramer asked Kelly to design a building for his California vineyard. Though the project was never carried out, Kelly held onto the plans. Enter Mickey and Jeanne Klein, Texas collectors and U.T. alumni, who around 2012 were tipped off to their existence by Houston dealer Hiram Butler. Working with Simone Wicha, the director at U.T.’s Blanton Museum of Art, and a supportive university administration, they helped spearhead a $23 million fundraising campaign.

The 2,715-square-foot result stands near the Blanton. A walkway lined with periwinkle leads to the front door, from which visitors may look back on a vista culminating in the state capitol. At the opposite end, walkways continue into the campus.

Stained-glass pieces dominate three of Austin’s facades Photo: Ellsworth Kelly Foundation/Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

From the outside, Austin looks hermetic: No windows allow a view in or out. It also looks as cheerful as a gumdrop. Its pared form resembles two intersecting lunch pails, or perhaps rural mailboxes. In fact, the four rounded facades evoke any number of homely American images, from grain silos to Quonset huts.

Stained-glass pieces dominate three of the facades. Two celebrate the spectrum: one with 12 colored spokes, the other with a dozen cubes tumbling in a circle. A nine-block grid above the door places colors in a more random arrangement, keeping the ensemble from feeling too programmatic.

Key to the success of Austin are the exceptional materials used throughout. Limestone was substituted for the originally envisioned stucco exterior.

Ellsworth Kelly with ‘Colors for a Large Wall’ (1954) Photo: Ellsworth Kelly Studio

Born in 1923, Ellsworth Kelly was essentially a New York artist who rejected Abstract Expressionism to pursue an obsession with elemental forms and color. For example, his monumental 1967 painting, “Spectrum IV,” owned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, consists of 13 simple colored stripes. After World War II, he spent several years in Paris. While there, he sought out artists such as Alexander Calder, Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi, but he was less interested in contemporary art than in France’s Romanesque churches. Their Latin-cross footprint and solid, earth-bound shapes find echoes in Austin.

Visitors enter through heavy Mission-style doors made from a live oak that had fallen on the campus. Inside are 14 marble panels in black and white, which Kelly likened to Stations of the Cross. In place of a cross stands a tall wooden form, the last of the artist’s “totems.” With its pale walls and 26-foot- high ceilings, the interior has a serene, sheltering effect, and a hush comparable to the Alamo’s.

A companion exhibit at the Blanton, “Form Into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Austin’” (through April 29), explores how the building recapitulates four of the artist’s principal motifs: color grids; the spectrum; Kelly’s subtly curved totems; and explorations of black and white. With all of these in well- balanced play, Austin is more than the sum of its parts.

Austin is the only building Kelly ever designed Photo: Ellsworth Kelly Foundation/Blant

Toggling between wall-mounted and freestanding pieces, Kelly’s oeuvre might previously have been summarized as a series of secular hymns to color and form. Austin turns him into a posthumous maestro of light. Depending on the strength and angle of the sun, the stained-glass pieces bathe the interior in changing colors.

Kelly had never worked with glass before, but despite his fading health, he was closely involved in its selection. He insisted that the glass be hand-blown. Marble was new to him also. The white was imported from Carrara, Italy; the black from the world’s only known source, in Belgium.

Carter E. Foster, the show’s curator, says that though Kelly never visited the city of Austin, he approved of the site, not least because the closest buildings and a classic live oak nearby would only minimally obstruct the changing light. Kelly’s admirers will be glad he did. With this secular temple he has left us a final monument to joy.

—Ms. Andersen is a former member of the Providence Journal’s editorial board and the author of “Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner” (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s).

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