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Ellsworth Kelly's "Austin" opens this weekend after three decades in the making

Blanton Museum of Art
Photograph: Courtesy Blanton Museum of Art

When Ellsworth Kelly, one of the 20th century’s greatest abstract artists, died in December 2015, he left behind a vision. Titled Austin, that work is Kelly’s only architectural design and one that, after decades of tinkering, will finally open at the Blanton Museum of Art this weekend, on February 18.

The concept for the 2,715-square-foot installation was gifted to the museum by Kelly in January 2015, and his total involvement—selecting the handblown glass windows, sourcing the wood for a totem—remained steadfast until his death. Museumgoers watched as Austin slowly took shape: a white limestone building with one clear and 32 colored glass windows on the structure’s south, west and east sides. The glass casts brilliant markings onto the white interior, a mesmerizing display that morphs as the sun changes in intensity and direction. Black-and-white marble panels, 14 in total, hang on the walls (an abstract rendition of the Stations of the Cross, a popular series of images in Catholic iconography), and a slender totem made from California redwoods stands tall across from the main entrance.

Photograph: Courtesy Blanton Museum of Art

The idea for the building emerged in 1986, when television producer Douglas S. Cramer asked Kelly to design a chapel for him. While the artist resolutely decided against creating one for private use, he stayed committed to the project and chose the University of Texas’ Blanton Museum as the site after director Simone Wicha and former UT president Bill Powers, among others, passionately championed the work.

While some have called Austin a chapel, the building itself is decidedly nondenominational. “It’s a chapel in form, not function,” says Carter Foster, the Blanton’s deputy director for curatorial affairs, explaining that Kelly referred to it as a place of calm, light and beauty.

Accompanying Austin is “Form Into Spirit,” an exhibition that explores the structure’s origins through Kelly’s four pet motifs: color grid, color spectrum, black-and-white and totem. It hints at how Kelly envisioned the world and the perspective that shaped his final work.

Photograph: Courtesy Blanton Museum of Art

“He once said to me, ‘What I do is set up situations for looking,’ ” says Foster. “He can control the elements that create what you see, but then it’s back on you.”

”Form Into Spirit” is on display through Apr 29 at the Blanton Museum of Art, and Austin is on permanent view during regular museum hours (blantonmuseum.org). Catch the grand opening this Sunday, February 18, which includes free admission, curator talks, music and more; the opening festivities begin at 12:30pm.

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