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Ellsworth Kelly's built reverie – exalting colour, surface and material


In January 2015, the abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly gifted the Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas a design concept for his most monumental work: the first and only building the artist designed, as well as the last project before his death that following December. The Austin chapel, as it's named, has quickly become the apple of the culture crowd's eye, drawing over 2,000 viewers to its opening earlier this month. But aside from its photo-op value and minimalist-appeal, it adds a new chapter to the captivating history book on what 'homes for spirituality and faith' should – and could – look like.

Cover: Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015 (Southeast view), artist-designed building with installation of colored glass windows, black and white marble panels, and redwood totem 60 ft. x 73 ft. x 26 ft. 4 in. © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation Photo courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015 (Interior, facing south), artist-designed building with installation of colored glass windows, black and white marble panels, and redwood totem, 60 ft. x 73 ft. x 26 ft. 4 in., ©Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, photo courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

Kelly's 2,700-square-foot building takes some influence from the architecture of Romanesque and Cistercian cathedrals, nodding to the cruciform plan that most European churches follow – i.e. a main processional aisle, with smaller spaces flanking either side. But in this case the resemblance to traditional Western religious spaces ends there. Instead of icons or paintings telling stories from scriptures, Kelly's chapel puts forward colour, surface, and contrast as the new divine. An eighteen-foot-tall redwood totem takes the place of a sacred effigy, and in the right wing of the building right fourteen panes of stained glass form a contemporary rose window. The stations of the cross are substituted with black and white marble panels on the walls, often dappled in colorful light from the stained-glass windows that honour the hues of in nature's gems – emerald, sapphire, ruby, and so on.

Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015 (East façade), artist-designed building with installation of colored glass windows, black and white marble panels, and redwood totem, 60 ft. x 73 ft. x 26 ft. 4 in., © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, photo courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

Kelly was an atheist, but his devotion to the design of this building was said to have been unyielding, with a level of attention to detail proclaimed by his surrounding team as unparalleled. He died a few days after having discussed the very last pending design details, leaving a built legacy that pinnacles his well-known minimalist and colour-centric art.

Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015 (Interior, facing west) , artist-designed building with installation of colored glass windows, black and white marble panels, and redwood totem , 60 ft. x 73 ft. x 26 ft. 4 in. © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, photo courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015 (Interior, facing north), artist-designed building with installation of colored glass windows, black and white marble panels, and redwood totem, 60 ft. x 73 ft. x 26 ft. 4 in., © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, photo courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

Kelly's trademark perfectionist finish was lent to every aspect of the building's materialisation, from the hand-blown coloured glass to the careful selection and specification of the Spanish limestone used as the primary building material. The building and its collective artworks dip into a canon of personal motifs that Kelly used throughout his career. Totems, colour fields, black and white, contrast – all culminating in a three-dimensional temple that invites contemplation on the longevity of ideas.

Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015 (West façade), artist-designed building with installation of colored glass windows, black and white marble panels, and redwood totem, 60 ft. x 73 ft. x 26 ft. 4 in., © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, photo courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

To mark the opening of Austin, a fundraiser dinner was held in honour of the American artist's life and career, and a record $1.1 million was raised as support for the Blanton Museum of Art's programming. But it is Austin itself that constitutes Kelly's spiritual endowment to the museum, and indeed to the art world. A testament to his genius – set in stone.

Austin is now open to the public at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin. An accompanying exhibition, Form into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, explores the conceptual origins of Kelly's chapel and is open until the end of April. Find out more about both the building and the exhibition here.

NEXT: Diébédo Francis Kéré's 2017 Serpentine Pavilion

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