TABLE OF CONTENTS

THE WHOLE TRUTH

Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015, artist-designed building, stained-glass windows, marble panels, redwood totem. Installation view, Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas at Austin, 2018. Photo: Kate Russell. © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.

WHEREVER YOU LOOK—the press release, the brochure, the fact sheet, the cornerstone—Ellsworth Kelly’s new building at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin insists on one thing, namely that it is one thing: a single work of art with a single name (Austin) and a single author (Kelly) conceived at a single time (1986) and finished at a single time (2015). Yes, it may have taken a team of architects and engineers, a small army of donors, and a handful of key players to bring it to life, or to bring it back from the dead and see it through to its public opening earlier this year. (The project was originally designed for a vineyard in Santa Barbara, California.) Yes, it may contain a multitude: three stained-glass windows with thirty-three discrete colored elements in total; fourteen marble panels of two units each, one black and one white; and one wooden sculpture.

But never mind. Austin insists that it is as simple and single as its title, as unitary as the tall sweep of redwood that presides over the area where “nave” and “transept” cross (Kelly’s atheism necessitates these scare quotes)—a sculpture that is even simpler than the crucifix we expect to find there. Notably, this sculpture does not have a formal title. In fact, none of the elements in the building does and neither does the building itself. The name Austin applies to the whole.

Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015, artist-designed building, stained-glass windows, marble panels, redwood totem. Installation view, Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas at Austin, 2018. Photo: Kate Russell. © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.

This message of singular unity did not strike me at first. Perhaps, like many visitors, I thought of the building as a utilitarian if elegant device, a delivery system for the various works within it, especially those glorious windows—not unlike the way James Turrell’s outdoor structures (and there is one just a quarter-mile away) are precise delivery systems for an experience of color, light, and sky. But Kelly worked his whole life against dichotomies of figure and ground, center and periphery, inside and outside, in whatever medium. He was mad about unity. And so we owe it to him to take the hint and work out the way in which Austin holds together.

Let’s start with the pair of windows facing off on either side as we enter: to the right, or east, a circle of twelve squares, and to the left, or west, a circle of twelve radiating lines, called the “tumbling squares” and the “starburst,” respectively. Taken together they are, for me, the best part of Austin. (Hey, it’s OK for a unity to have its highlights.)

Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015, artist-designed building, stained-glass windows, marble panels, redwood totem. Installation view, Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas at Austin, 2018. Photo: Kate Russell. © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.

The squares, which Kelly abstracted, or extracted, from the famous rose window in the north transept of France’s Chartres Cathedral, are mesmerizing. No longer locked into the complex formal and iconographic program of the original, they tumble around the white wall. The effect happens, I think, because it is not clear which mental rotation, clockwise or counterclockwise, gets us from one square to another, and this gives each square a strange quark-like energy, vibrating in place. This effect is inherent in the original Chartres geometry, which Kelly borrowed exactly, but it took his inspired act of paring away the rest of the window to set it loose. (He was always good with a scalpel.) And yet give it a minute, or a few seconds, and the squares settle down, the image stabilizes. You see the twelve-pointed star implied within the circle of squares. You figure out (if you are obsessive) that, far from being arranged willy-nilly, the squares are mutually aligned with perfect regularity along the thirty-degree angles (360 divided by twelve) of the star’s twelve points. But blink and they start tumbling again.

Austin insists that it is as simple and single as its title, as unitary as the tall sweep of redwood that presides over the area where “nave” and “transept” cross.

The starburst is simpler, composed of twelve thin rectangular units radiating from a common center. Whereas the tumbling squares create a porous periphery, focusing our attention within, these lines suggest an explosion outward. And while the squares seem to quiver and jostle in place, here a movement of the whole figure is strongly implied—recalling those spinning spokes that we know so well from waiting at our computers for something to happen.1 This circularity, by the way, seems to be something Kelly tried to capture as early as 1953 in his “Spectrum” paintings, which tend to begin and end with yellow, suggesting a potential wrapping-around (a possibility also present in Jasper Johns’s crosshatch works); but it took the occasion of Austin for him to realize the wrap.

Ellsworth Kelly, Study for Spectrum IV, 1967, oil and collage on paper, 11 3/8 x 12 5/8".

For all their differences, the two windows are united in close counterpoint. First, they share the same spectrum of colors moving in the same progression, from yellow at top to purple at bottom and around again. This is not the spectrum of the color wheel, with complementaries facing each other, oh no: Kelly is never so systematic, and it seems that both his love for the darker part of the spectrum and his intuitive approach have thrown the usual color wheel slightly out of whack, so that while yellow opposes purple, red opposes blue. Second, they both imply an inscribed geometric form: Within the starburst there is a circle, smaller and more obvious than the star across from it, made from the space on the wall where the lines stop short of meeting. Third, the two windows can be mapped onto each other, with each radiating line transfixing each square to become one of the spines of a twelve-pointed star. This thought experiment, which occurred to me only after I left, collapses the width of the building into a single image, a completed, kaleidoscopic burst that recalls the Chartres window more strongly than either of Kelly’s windows alone. How’s that for unity?

The east and west windows, while made of rectangles, are basically circles, which are very rare in Kelly’s work. He felt they were too static a form—a pitfall that he has certainly avoided with these two windows. In fact, they could use an anchor, and they get one in the south window, a simple grid of nine colored squares (known as the “color grid”) above the big wooden doors of the entrance. Here, in contrast to the two spectral windows, the colors have been chosen and placed without any system, which gives the window a refreshing randomness.2 But if there is an effect of randomness, or noncomposition, in the color composition, the configuration itself is utterly stable, a square grid of squares. Furthermore, in what seems a very deliberate choice, this window is organized around a white glass pane in the center, the only noncolored pane in the building. It reminds us of the “empty” centers of the two other windows, the star and the circle. And in a moment that seems almost religious (sorry, Ellsworth), this pane also suggests a point of origin, both because of its centrality in the main facade and because in nature, the spectrum of colors originates, prior to refraction, in uncolored light.

Redwood totem component of Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, 2015. Installation view, Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas at Austin, 2018. Photo: Gabriel C. Pérez.

The redwood “totem,” as Kelly called such sculptures, is just as central to the building’s plan as this clear pane of glass is to the elevation. As the only sculpture, it embodies an evident singularity. What may not be so evident is the way it brings together the play of circularity and rectangularity in the windows themselves, and indeed in the whole architecture (which, I should have mentioned earlier, is derived from the orthogonal crossing of two semicircular barrel vaults). The totem is squared off at top and bottom but curves symmetrically inward and then again slightly outward as we look down along each side. And these two facing curves originate, like so many of Kelly’s curves, from imaginary circles. They each have a radius of about 256 feet—huge circles that would cut deep underground if completed, of which we see only small segments. And so, near the center of Austin, the circle is stated, albeit in a way that is impossible to know without being told. Once we know it, maybe we can feel it.

Kelly has brought the cathedral down to earth. He has left us with a human work.

That leaves a final element, the fourteen panels that “represent the Stations of the Cross” (as the fact sheet tells us), those fourteen key moments on Christ’s path along the Via Dolorosa. Each made of a piece of flawless, unveined white marble from Carrara, Italy, and a piece of black marble from Belgium, they have a seductive, unpolished soft-hardness that lies somewhere between canvas and metal, Kelly’s more common materials for panel supports. (I was pretty sure they were metal until I got close.) Of all the elements in the building, these panels seem least integrated with the whole, most entangled with the past. The stations are often presented, as they are here, at eye level, so viewers desiring communion with the sufferings of Jesus can experience them directly as they walk the interior periphery.3 Also in keeping with tradition, Kelly’s stations proceed in order, starting to the left of the entrance and ending to the right, although this is not indicated: We only know it from a 1987 sketch where they are numbered. Even their compositions, which divide black from white at different proportions and angles through the cycle, bear a relation to tradition, for the cross—which Kelly, wielding his scalpel, made the hero of the story, excising the human figure—typically assumes different angles as the narrative unfolds.4

Kelly worked his whole life against dichotomies of figure and ground, center and periphery, inside and outside, in whatever medium. He was mad about unity.

True confession: The stations are, perhaps appropriately, the element of Austin that I struggle with. It isn’t their traditionalism or literalism so much as their scale and placement. Relatively small and low, they risk being perceived as an additional element, and rumor has it that Kelly came up with them as a space-filling device to ensure that no foreign works were placed on his walls. And if they are additional, there goes the unity. Perhaps these little squares are precisely that supplement that, as Jacques Derrida proposed, every apparent unity requires, the frame or parergon that goes around the work just as these stations go around the interior, tying it hopefully together.

Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015, artist-designed building, stained-glass windows, marble panels, redwood totem. Installation view, Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas at Austin, 2018. Photo: Kate Russell. © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.

Such a Derridean dynamic may indeed be present, but it has more to do with scale than with framing. The intimate scale of the stations is a clever device to make the windows and totem seem bigger and more monumental than they are by throwing them into relief. The other way Kelly does this is to make the windows bigger in relation to the architectural envelope than they would be in any normal church or cathedral. The tumbling squares and the starburst have a satisfying, filling scale, a monumentality that is surprising given the modest size of the building. But it is—and I think this is key to the meaning of Austin—a human monumentality. At Chartres we look up at the rose window in awe; at Austin we can almost touch it. Maybe we should think less of Chartres than of San Marco, in Florence, and in particular of those cells with their semicircular vaults that Fra Angelico filled with frescoes for the contemplation of his fellow monks. With the help of the stations as intermediaries or intercessors, Kelly has brought the cathedral down to earth. He has left us with a human work.

Chartres Cathedral, ca. 1220, France. Rose window, ca. 1235, north transept. Photo: Guillaume Piolle/Wikicommons.

LET US STEP BACK—not to assess the building’s exterior (there is no time for that) but rather to think briefly about the elephant in the room. What is a confirmed atheist doing making something that looks so much like a church? The question is not unique to Kelly. Just think of all the modern artists who have made stained-glass windows: Fernand Léger at Audincourt, Pierre Soulages at Conques, Gerhard Richter at Cologne, Brice Marden at Basel (unrealized), Sigmar Polke at Zurich, Imi Knoebel at Reims, David Rabinowitch at Digne, Shirley Jaffe at Perpignan, Christopher Wool at La Charité-sur-Loire, Robert Morris at Maguelone, Jennifer Bartlett at Houston, and David Hockney (coming soon) at Westminster Abbey in London. Louise Nevelson made sculptures for Saint Peter’s Church in New York. Sean Scully made oil paintings and frescoes for a monastery near Barcelona. Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, and Herbert Ferber made art for a synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey. Turrell let the sky into a Quaker meetinghouse in Houston that he helped design.

I doubt more than a few of these artists were believers. What is going on, apart from the lure of commissions? It is not a new question. One common answer points to the modern desire to compete with or assume the mantle of the art-historical past. A deeper version of this answer is, to put it starkly, that art has replaced religion: In a secular, modern, disenchanted world, art is as close as we can come to the divine. This helps explain Mark Rothko’s chapel in Houston and Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross,” 1958–66, two monumental, ostensibly Christian works by nonobservant Jews with strong spiritual inclinations. As Terry Eagleton recently put it, in a succulent phrase, “Perhaps culture can fill the God-shaped hole scooped out by secular modernity.”5

Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015, artist-designed building, stained-glass windows, marble panels, redwood totem. Installation view, Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas at Austin, 2018. Photo: Kate Russell. © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.

I don’t pretend to have the answer for Kelly, but the comparison I keep coming back to is one that I have not yet mentioned: Henri Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, France, a four-year labor of love (finished in 1951) that he considered his masterpiece and designed inside and out, from the building itself to the stained-glass windows, mosaics, furnishings, and even priestly vestments. It is the gold standard of the modern chapel, a paragon of artistic control and aesthetic integration that few have been able to pull off, given the planning, logistics, financing, and dedication required. It seems to take the trigger of a rare passion, like Matisse’s devotion to the young woman who nursed him back to health after cancer surgery. Rothko came close with his chapel in Houston but in the end did not quite govern the architectural program. Austin is more Matisse than Rothko: It backs away from the abstract sublime and inserts itself, more humbly, into traditions and precedents of religious art that inspired Kelly as a young man. As he tells us:

In Boston in 1947, as an art student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, I discovered a 12th-century fresco in the museum’s collection that made a tremendous impression on me. Later, when I was living and working in Paris, I would put my bike on a train and visit early architectural sites all over France. I was intrigued by Romanesque and Byzantine art and architecture. While the simplicity and purity of these forms had a great influence on my art, I conceived this project without a religious program. I hope visitors will experience Austin as a place of calm and light.6

I would only add that Kelly’s drive, it seems to me, was not to fill a God-shaped hole: The motivation of Austin, and of his art in general, was not any sense of lack. In taking his scalpel to the visual fabric of the world and finding those moments of beauty and singularity to be made into art, Kelly never distinguished between solid and void, presence and absence, figure and ground, object and shadow. There never was a hole.

Harry Cooper is curator and head of modern art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

NOTES:

1. Kelly could not have seen these “throbbers,” as they are called, when he designed the window, as they were not invented until the early 1990s, but today it is a hard association to avoid.

2. Let’s recall, as Yve-Alain Bois has demonstrated, that chance and the grid were two strategies that Kelly discovered simultaneously during his formative years in France, between 1948 and 1954.

3. They are often rendered in relief, so that they may be touched as well as seen: If you drive to San Antonio after Austin and visit the Spanish missions along the river, you can see examples.

4. This may connect these panels to the original tumbling squares of Chartres, for each of those squares, behind its depiction of one of the kings of Judah, has a horizon line that necessarily hits its tilted square frame at a different height and angle. And Kelly’s stations, at forty by forty inches each, are indeed squares.

5. Terry Eagleton, Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 140.

6. Blanton Museum of Art, “Blanton Museum of Art Announces Acquisition of Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, a Site for Art and Contemplation,” press release, February 6, 2015, blantonmuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/files/2015/PressReleases/KellyReleaseFINAL.pdf.