- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Patches of color drip ever so slowly down the walls, then pool onto the smooth black granite floor. On sunny days, the tall white barrel vaults swim with jewel-toned iridescence.
Not only do the intense hues migrate minute by minute, they alter from day to day according to the position of the sun above “Austin,” a phenomenal new building that doubles as a monumental work of art on the University of Texas campus.
Even when the doors, made of Texas live oak, are closed to the public, the light show continues. At night, interior illumination shimmers through the windows, drawing passersby to its warmth.
Designed by late American modern artist Ellsworth Kelly, this $23 million project created by the Blanton Museum of Art instantly takes its place as a crown jewel of Austin art.
“It will be a bold new landmark for the university and the city,” predicts Blanton Director Simone Wicha, who spent years putting together “Austin,” colloquially known as the Ellsworth Kelly Building or just the Ellsworth or sometimes the Kelly. “Inevitably, it will change the way the world sees Austin.”
The 2,715-square-foot space is the first and only building designed by Kelly (1923-2015), a painter, sculptor and printmaker considered among top innovators in international postwar art. He imagined the original version, clad in stucco rather than limestone, for a private collector at a California winery in 1986, but a key introduction by a Houston art dealer led to the Blanton’s coup.
Before his death, the artist donated his design concept, meticulously chose the materials and supervised almost every aspect of its execution, from the curved gray-to-white exterior limestone quarried in Alicante, Spain, to the 14 black-and-white marble panels inside, quarried in Carrera, Italy, and Belgium, and the lighting, climate control and security systems.
After a series of VIP parties, the artwork will be unveiled to the public Feb. 18.
Already, art experts are applauding.
“Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Austin’ culminates the career of one of the greatest of modern artists,” says Richard Shiff, an art professor who directs UT’s Center for the Study of Modernism. “Kelly conceived of (it) as a single aesthetic experience. ‘Austin’ is culture in a pure form. Its appeal is universal.”
Sometimes described as a master of color-field or minimalist art, Kelly was fascinated by spectra, grids and abstract combinations of black and white, as well as other elements on display in this, his final project.
The colored glass windows poke through three walls. The color grid on the south façade looks toward the Capitol. The tumbling squares on the east wall will fire up in the morning, and the starburst pattern on the west façade will glow in the late afternoon.
Construction of the windows was a matter of minute concern for Kelly and his artisans. To achieve the intensity of hue and textural detail that the artist desired, the glass plates were mouth-blown by Franz Mayer of Munich, Germany, with carefully calibrated stains. Then they were assembled on the interior and exterior edges of the walls, with two plates on each side.
Not just a work of art and architecture, “Austin” redefines the southern border of campus and, indeed, the pedestrian mall still known as Speedway, which serves as the university’s strongest north-south axis. The Kelly structure is not oriented to that mall, but rather toward the Capitol, seen in perspective through the angled Blanton buildings. This corrects an error going back to the 1880s in the visual linkage of the city’s two most influential institutions. Plans are already underway to transform the North Congress Avenue corridor between the Capitol and “Austin” into a more inviting walkway, including the addition of new buildings.
Although the intersecting barrel vaults — which appear much taller inside than from the exterior — along with the 18-foot-tall “Totem,” made of redwood and curved to correspond to segments of an imaginary circle — give the place the feeling of a chapel, it was not intended as such. The black-and-white stone panels also parallel the Stations of the Cross in a Catholic Church.
“Kelly was not religious,” Wicha says. “But after military service during World War II, he was fascinated by old churches, such as France’s Chartres Cathedral, with its rose stained-glass windows, and the white chapels on the Greek islands, which are echoed here.”
Promising an experience akin to visiting the Matisse chapel in Vence, France or, more familiar to Texans, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, it is meant to be a site for joy and contemplation of all varieties.
An exhibit, “Form Into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Austin,’” opens Feb. 18 and runs through April 29 in the nearby east wing of the museum. It was put together by Carter E. Foster, the Blanton’s deputy director for curatorial affairs, to coincide with the opening of the new building. Formerly with the Whitney Museum of American Art, Carter remembers seeing the model for “Austin” in Kelly’s studio long before the Blanton acquired it. As was Kelly’s habit with other works of art, it was eventually named after the city where it was completed.
“‘Austin’ not only showcases Kelly’s early appreciation of historical European art and architecture,” Foster says, “it also marries this passion with the transformative themes that he would discover over the course of his life. I hope that, with the help of this exhibition, everyone who visits the work will come away with the same sense of awe that I do.”
Having acquired the design, raised the money and completed the construction, Wicha now turns her attention to its anticipated reception.
“The opening of ‘Austin’ further cements the Blanton as an international cultural destination,” she says. “The broad geographic support we received for this project is reflective of the audience we anticipate visiting Kelly’s monumental achievement.”