I was amazed and ecstatic when I heard that the Blanton — that UT —that Austin was going to be the site of a major installation by Ellsworth Kelly. I’m a huge devotee of his work. I find its simplicity really powerful. Kelly’s recent passing shortly before the New Year will no doubt inspire art lovers from all points of the compass to begin making pilgrimages to the Blanton as soon as the doors to Austin open.
While we wait, though, why not check out some of the other art destinations in the Lone Star State? Paving the way for Kelly, twentieth-century giants Donald Judd and Mark Rothko have made long-lasting marks in Texas.
In the mid-1980s, minimalist artist Judd founded the Chinati Foundation and turned the small town of Marfa into an art Mecca. He chose the site, a former Army base which sits on more than 300 acres, to have room to spread out and so his works could enjoy a permanent home.
“It takes a great deal of time and thought to install work carefully,” he said. “Somewhere … a strict measure must exist for the art of this time and place.”
I visited Chinati about a decade ago, on work travel to the McDonald Observatory. In Texas terms, Chinati is relatively nearby to the Observatory (about 45 minutes). The deserted landscape of West Texas provides a perfect backdrop for Judd’s stark art. Once you’ve seen this site, you’ll never forget it. Outside it’s hot and dusty, and inside much of Judd’s art—and that of the few fellow artists included, like light artist Dan Flavin—is sleek and shiny. Chinati is not like anywhere else.
Judd’s foray into Marfa attracted other artists and art organizations in the ensuing decades. Today, in addition to half a dozen contemporary galleries showing everything from lithographs to sculpture to canvases, several other arts nonprofits share the Marfa art scene with Chinati.
Housed in a converted 1920s dancehall, Ballroom Marfa holds gallery shows, hosts live music, screens films, and puts on educational programs. Marfa Contemporary hosts exhibitions and events, and supports an artist in residence.
So much for the west — let’s turn and look to the rest of Texas. A few months ago, I made an art pilgrimage to a site that seems close in spirit to what Kelly is creating at the Blanton. I’d heard about the Rothko Chapel in Houston for years, but had never seen it.
In the 1960s, art collectors John and Dominique de Menil commissioned Mark Rothko to create a non-denominational chapel. Now known simply as the Rothko Chapel, it opened in 1971 on the grounds of the Menil Collection (an amazing, free, museum in its own right).
The chapel physically sits in the same neighborhood as the main museum but is miles away mentally. An imposing brick structure designed by Philip Johnson, it looks a bit plain on the outside. The nondescript exterior kind of makes you wonder what’s within. What’s the big deal?
I was lucky enough to be there on a Thursday when almost no one was around. The chapel opened at 10 a.m., and I was waiting when the doors opened.
Inside—alone but for a single docent—I was surrounded by enormous Rothko paintings. Awed and overwhelmed, I sat on a bench and stared. No photos are allowed, so I took out a little notebook and started scribbling impressions: canvases, deep aubergine, black, monumental, dark wood benches (12), black mediation cushions, skylight. I drew a page after page of doodles showing the eight sides of the chapel’s interior and sketching the scale of the canvases on those walls, estimating their height and width.
Then I decided to just go for it. I came all this way, and I was going to see if I could have an art experience. Sitting on a meditation cushion at the chapel’s dead center and trying not to feel self-conscious, I took up a cross-legged pose with my palms upturned on my knees, thumb and first finger together. I stared softly at the Rothko triptych in front of me. It was calm. It was peaceful and still.
I’d like to tell you that the secrets of “life, the universe, and everything” were revealed to me in that moment, but that didn’t happen. What did happen was that I felt a kind of calm, and peace, and blankness. I was not thinking about any problems, mine or anyone else’s. I wasn’t thinking about how it was 100 degrees outside, or how I still had to drive back to Austin and get back to work. I was not thinking about anything. I was at rest — and that’s a pretty damn good experience to have with a work of art. I count that particular art pilgrimage as a success. I was able to experience the chapel as it was intended—as a place of reflection and meditation. Rothko and the de Menils created something extraordinary.
Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, too, is slated to become a place for meditation and reflection. But in the meantime, there are lots more Texas art sites to see. Why not make your own list and start day tripping?
Rebecca Johnson is editor of McDonald Observatory’s StarDate magazine, and a volunteer blogger for the Blanton.