Exhibit of the week
Ellsworth Kelly: Austin
Blanton Museum of Art, Austin
A new landmark has opened in Texas’ capital city, said M.H. Miller in The New York Times. Austin, a secular chapel that the great minimalist painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly conceived of decades before his death in 2015, represents “the culmination of Kelly’s oeuvre—not just a summation of his work’s themes but his masterpiece, the grandest exploration of pure color and form in a seven-decade career spent testing the boundaries of both.” The University of Texas’ Blanton Museum of Art undertook the project several years ago and worked with Kelly on every detail. Though the structure will invite comparisons with Houston’s Rothko Chapel and Henri Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence on the French Riviera, “it’s possible that no contemporary artwork of this scale by a major artist has matched its creator’s initial ambitions so perfectly.”
Viewed from a distance, the small, pale-gray chapel is an unassuming presence—“the ghost of a building,” said Robert Faires in The Austin Chronicle. Once you’re inside, though, “it’s as if you’ve stepped into Kelly’s head.” The work integrated into the space recapitulates the artist’s lifelong preoccupations. You notice color from stained-glass windows instantly. But the white walls are lined by 14 panels made of black and white marble that in their juxtaposition of simple geometric shapes offer a study in formal relationships “at their most primal.” The windows supply similar studies in color relations, one at each of three ends of the cross-shaped building. Kelly knew the sun would shift each season and over the course of each day, casting crisscrossing color beams through the space. Linger a bit, and the movement of vibrantly colored shapes across the walls and granite floor makes the late artist seem “very much alive.”
As pleasant as the space may be, “the whole project has the feel of an anachronism,” said Mark Lamster in The Dallas Morning News. It takes you back to the postmodern 1980s, the decade in which it was conceived and “a time when architecture was characterized by a playful treatment of historical forms.” Younger generations, within the art world and outside it as well, have pressing sociopolitical concerns that leave less room for such purposeless play. Kelly has also created work that generates more pure pleasure. Though you may love every minute you spend in his chapel, “I found it somewhat wanting, a bit too ascetic and not quite ecstatic enough.” It is, at least, a refuge—“a vehicle in which to escape our world for Ellsworth Kelly’s,” a world where a major work of art can be only about itself.