Ellsworth Kelly’s monumental “Austin” is a masterclass in nuances of abstraction. He has created an environment layers deep whose simplicity communicates vividly through impeccable craft and deep engagement with cultural touchstones, both shared and personal. Kelly’s final, gracious gift to an Austin that he never visited resonates with the city that is his installation’s namesake and enriches the cultural landscape of a campus to which such expressions are new.
At once a culmination of artistic activity and a recapitulation of practiced themes in new mediums, Austin is born of a lifetime of Kelly’s careful perceptions of the built environment. Where so much of his work sought to embody, not just represent, those small flashes of brilliance he saw in specific moments, he has now given us an architectural object full of potential moments of inspiration.
There are two fundamental components of creativity: the ability to see and the ability to make. Austin reveals Kelly’s immense skill in each and, moreover, models their cyclical integration through architecture.
Austin realizes a concept originally designed for TV producer Douglas Cramer in 1986-87. It underwent five significant changes in its development, three of which were formal modifications made by Kelly in concert with the Blanton and Rick Archer, FAIA, and Overland Partners. What began in California as exterior stucco became stochastically arranged masonry in order to give it the desired permanence in the Central Texas climate. The nave gained 5 feet in length to increase its processional quality. The proportion of the end walls was modified and their height increased by 4 feet. In the final version, the center square of the grid aligns with the springing points of the vault. As much as Austin is above all an Ellsworth Kelly, Overland’s role is commendable for the firm’s deft combination of a light hand and decisive precision that quietly congeals a honed version of the artist’s vision. Less humble or sensitive architects could have irreparably muddled the concept. Overland pulled it off.
The other two changes are intertwined: the location of the building in Austin on the campus of UT in the collection of the Blanton Museum, and the fact that it has no explicitly religious program. That Kelly chose this situation (turning down other options, including the building’s use as a consecrated chapel at a Roman Catholic university) — coupled with the fact that the relocation itself changed only the exterior finish material — together confirm the intentionality of the building’s content. The thoughtful honesty of its integration of art and architecture into a singular work allows it to appeal to a broad spectrum of experience — whether specifically spiritual or generally contemplative — without becoming so vague as to be meaningless.
The building captures instances of exquisite purity, an understated triumph amid the more banal trappings of its institutional neighbors. Particularly on the exterior, careful detailing conceals expected transitions without conceit. The stone coursing, deceptively simple joinery, flush openings, and bespoke components resolve into a clean union of regular Euclidean solids. The effect is startling: accomplishing such a feat in an actual building is rare, and sets the work apart. The overwhelming impact of the three large window pieces moves the space further into the realm of the numinous.
The building’s outside edges trace crisp lines of shadow on the face of the barrel vaults as an analog to the fabricated anticomposition of Kelly’s black-and-white pieces. But here, architecture allows Kelly to transcend the earlier construction of “canvas as object,” as the constructed object becomes both the canvas and the source of an embodied automatic composition.
But there are also occasions where the work succumbs to the banalities of architecture: The apsidal fire exit, the hanging lighting assemblies, and the uneasy coordination between the spectral lighting of the stained glass and the artificial lighting are the fruits of a first attempt. Nonetheless, the place as a whole radiates a lush, full silence and a remarkable exuberance.
Texas now has two artist-led edifices on museum campuses that complicate the relationship between art and architecture. Both are intended as integrated secular modern spaces in which patrons encounter specific instances of abstract art — and yet, perhaps by means of artistic ambition, both tenuously elevate themselves into the realm of spirituality. They invite a similar reaction, but they could not be more different.
In the Rothko Chapel, abstraction is a subjective yet universal language based more on the expression of the artist and experience of the viewer. Its inclusivity comes through the negation
of the specifics of culture in exchange for an invented context that is a blank slate for individual contemplation. In Austin, the abstraction is more distillation and springs from conscious engagement with the specifics of collective culture. Kelly presents us with an object to behold: not an impression or representation or negation of a thing; not a commentary on a thing, but the thing itself.
Perhaps the most telling difference between the two is that the Rothko calls itself a chapel, whereas the Kelly does not. Rothko’s dirge of a building needs the pseudo-sacred moniker to behave as a spiritual place. The Kelly is so intrinsically what it is — so charged with mesmerizing joy — that what we call it is gloriously irrelevant.
The chapel typology of Austin is so robust that the Blanton has been careful to play down any spiritual or religious connection. Given the human need to categorize, however, and in the absence of a stronger candidate, casual references to “the chapel” abound in conversation and in print. Whatever the artist had in mind, you have to imagine that Kelly’s chapel passes the average Longhorn freshman’s “duck test.” (If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck — it’s probably a duck.)
To ignore this fact discounts much of Kelly’s genius. Austin plays on multiple aspects of chapel typology — formal structure, specific precedents, and actual inhabitation — exemplifying and subverting each. There will be no explicit communal religious gatherings here, but the inhabitational typology of “chapel” encompasses a multitude of more individual, contemplative, and devotional activities.
It doesn’t need to be a religious work to participate in the importance of the spiritual in the human experience and the centrality of ritual in culture. Kelly’s Austin bears witness to the particular brilliance embedded in essential threads of Western culture and shares them through abstraction.
Kelly’s work does not fit neatly into the broad narrative of a progressive rejection of objective sources (especially history or tradition) in favor of individualistic expressionism. His is a different kind of abstraction, a non-reductive distillation rooted in actual objects, processes, and precedents. Though compared to them by contemporary critics, his work neither follows from the Neoplasticism of Mondrian nor leads precisely into the abstract expressionism of Rothko or Barnett Newman. Reflecting in 1971 on his transition into more abstract work in Paris in the late 1940s, Kelly explained that he “became more interested in the physical structures of Paris, the stonework of the old bridges, and preferred to study and be influenced by it, rather than contemporary art. The forms found in the vaulting of a cathedral or a splatter of tar on the road seemed more valid and instructive and a more voluptuous experience than either geometric or action pairing.”
Two of the most significant, and perhaps surprising, influences on that trajectory away from figurative painting find their culmination in Austin: a close looking at architecture, from incidental vernaculars to the Romanesque to Le Corbusier; and imagery from a range of religious contexts. His study of mosaics and manuscripts at Paris’ Byzantine Institute seems to have had the most immediate translation into his decreasingly figural paintings on religious subjects: Mother and Child, Lazarus, Baptism, Monstrance, and Mandorla. The recurring mandorla form originated in the facade of Notre-Dame la Grande at Poitiers, which Kelly visited during an Easter vacation in 1949. On the same trip, Kelly visited the Romanesque church of Saint-Pierre de Chauvigny whose chevet comprises a cruciform arrangement of barrel-vaulted apsidal chapels. He also mailed himself a postcard of Sainte-Radegonde, Talmont-sur-Gironde, whose more compact form, interior barrel vaults, and dramatic hilltop perch appear in Kelly’s original concept for the Cramer chapel. He abstracts these sources in a direction that follows and then exceeds that of the later Cistercian abbey churches (notably Le Thoronet) that appear in Kelly’s black-and-white Romanesque Series lithographs of 1973-76.
Sainte-Radegonde and the Chauvigny chevet show that Kelly looked to specific architectural moments for his works, including the building that became Austin, not just the general patterns of a period or conventions of building. This practice is perhaps best illustrated in Kelly’s first “object canvas” from 1949. Originally titled “Black and White Relief,” he later renamed it “Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris” when the feared stigma from his contemporaries of specificity in abstract art was less of a concern. But to merely identify a reference does not define these works. There is yet Kelly’s uncanny craft to retain the potency of his initial perception and his singular ability to see substance. The tumbling squares window excised from the Chartres north rose window provides a perfect example. As many times as I had studied Chartres, I had never seen that pattern. And in addition to the exquisite glass of the window in Austin, it, in turn, enlivens Chartres anew.
Without this intense engagement of the specifics of culture, it would be easy to dismiss the content of the building as pure abstraction or a solely secular experience of the ultimate statement of an artist’s individual vision. One might explain away the cruciform barrel vaults; the totem’s anthropomorphic character and placement corresponding to the corporal altar; and the long association with stained glass in Western religious architecture. But the content of the 14 marble panels that constitute the Stations of the Cross, Austin’s most subtle yet most narrative component, are undeniably rooted in a particular devotion with its idiosyncratic number, sequence, and form.
Kelly treats the stations as an “already made,” retains their substance, and provides new insight into an existing devotion, while at the same time not precluding or detracting from other kinds of uses. Compare these to Barnett Newman’s raw monochromatic Stations, which began as a personally expressive work around sorrow whose title emerged through a subjective process. Newman’s are canvases, intended for a gallery setting, and only thematically linked to the Stations, whereas Kelly’s are objects inhabiting an integrated environment, one whose architectonic quality invites more than passive contemplation.
Kelly’s work is of such quality that it speaks instantly but rewards more in-depth investigation. It is the kind of work that justifies and sustains repeated visits. We await in eager anticipation the roles the building will play in the life of the university community and in the cultural life of the city of Austin.
Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin works as a generic “chapel of light” and “space for contemplation,” but in its layered particularities, it far transcends the superficial spirituality of so many similarly-described architectural pavilions. It is a fitting monument to a great American artist, but in its synthesis of and participation in global and local artistic culture, it is far more than a vanity project. The work as a whole represents a culmination of Kelly’s oeuvre, but it also shows his continual innovation, with the fresh expression of the deep motifs running through that work into new materials and mediums. It is a building to contain art, but as it embodies Kelly’s lifelong passion for the built environment as a source of inspiration, it becomes an immediate, perhaps inevitable, masterpiece.
Jason John Paul Haskins, AIA, is an architect with Bercy Chen Studio and writes about liturgy, architecture, and history at locusiste.org.