Austin‘s Forms and Motifs: The Culmination of a Career

Austin In Depth

CHAPTER 7: Austin‘s Forms and Motifs: The Culmination of a Career

Although Kelly was not an architect, architecture and space always informed how he thought about his work, from his early creative breakthroughs in France until the end of his life. The evolution of the Cramer pavilion into Austin allowed him to fuse his artistic vocabulary with a building of his own design, bringing together decades of thought and practice in a single, monumental work. There are four artistic motifs in Austin, each one with a rich history in Kelly’s oeuvre.

Black and White

When working without color, Kelly focused on subtle shifts in visual weight, balance, and imbalance created by these two oppositional elements. Kelly is best known as a painter, and we associate painting with color. Like most artists, however, he drew far more than he painted, and drawing tends to be a black-and-white medium. Working out a composition on paper first, he might set aside a sheet for years or even decades before returning to it to make a larger-scale painting or sculpture [figure 58figure 59]. “Black and white” evokes something basic, elemental, and decisive. We often use these oppositional non-colors symbolically, to represent light and dark, good and evil, purity and impurity. Either may represent infinity or emptiness. Kelly was well aware of these connotations and explored them in his Stations of the Cross, the fourteen marble relief panels that fill the interior walls of Austin.


On entering Austin, the immediate focal point is a soaring, emphatically vertical, eighteen-foot-high wooden sculpture of California redwood. “I call them my Totems,”[10] the artist has said of this form. He first used it in 1974 utilizing steel and aluminum. All of the works in this series reflect two segments of a circle deployed to create either a convex or concave form [figure 60]. The curves in some Totems are so slight as to be barely perceptible, but in all of them, the curves are segments of an imaginary and very large perfect circle that can be described with a specific numeric radius. For Kelly, using very gradual curves allows “the eye to move fast over the sculpture, to experience a sensation of speed.”[11]

Because they are vertical and freestanding, the Totems intentionally evoke the human figure and exist more firmly in the viewer’s space than does a wall-bound painting or relief sculpture. Kelly conceived them with the history of ancient figural sculpture in mind, specifically the male and female types in Archaic Greek art known as kouroi (young men) and korai (young women). He thought of the concave forms as masculine and the convex as feminine, and these correspond to the general silhouettes of their ancient counterparts [figure 61figure 62].


The east and west facades of Austin feature circular stained-glass windows of twelve lights each, an array of colors graduating from yellow at the top darkening clockwise to purple at the bottom, then lightening up through hues of blue and green and back to yellow. The spectrum is a familiar concept from science (a prism refracting light), nature (a rainbow), and art (the twelve-color wheel of primary colors and their derivations). Kelly was familiar with color theory and, as a student, used a system developed by Albert Munsell, one that also featured gradations from light to dark, starting with yellow.

He started his own Spectrum series in 1953, numbering each of its major paintings; he completed the last, Spectrum IX, in 2014. Kelly explored the idea most intensely between 1967 and 1972, using his instinct and perception rather than science or theory. These pieces typically feature an array of thirteen long vertical panels, each painted separately and then joined together in a square or rectangle, as in the monumental example here from 1967 [figure 63]. When Kelly first conceived the building that became Austin in the mid-1980s, both circular windows had spectrum gradations, the only time he used the concept in a round composition. He followed this idea precisely in Austin. To create bilateral symmetry in each window, he reduced the number of colors from thirteen to twelve. Today these two stunning windows opposite one another create the extraordinary play of light inside Austin, as Kelly’s spectrums coalesce with the light of the sun.

Color Grid

The south facade of Austin features a grid of nine differently colored squares in stained glass. Kelly first used a color grid in 1951. During his formative period in France (1948–54), he became interested in removing himself from the process of creation to make work with an impersonal, objective quality. As he described that breakthrough, “The new works were to be objects, unsigned, anonymous.”[12] He wanted his objects to be in the world, not to depict the world. One way to do this was to avoid the figure-ground dichotomy crucial to representational painting and drawing, a dichotomy which creates a hierarchical composition, with some elements more prominent than others. Kelly was instead seeking non-hierarchy and non-composition: an overall field in which each element has roughly equal visual weight. The modular grid and chance methods to determine color placement were tools he used to reach this goal. Both strategies came together in a series of landmark collages and paintings. Among them is a series called Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance [figure 64] and two collages that led to breakthrough paintings: Colors for a Large Wall and Sanary. These works have in common an astonishing luminosity achieved through the various ways in which black, white, and color squares are distributed across their surfaces. In other variations of a grid, the artist reduced it down to nine squares [figure 65]. He experimented widely with this format as well, using both white and black grounds with nine different colors to achieve various light effects. These works are direct precursors to the south-facade window of Austin, the only one of Kelly’s grids that glows with actual light.

[10] Brenda Richardson, “Ellsworth Kelly’s Totem,” in Ellsworth Kelly Wood Sculpture (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2011), 9.
[11] Christopher Bedford, “Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Untitled’ at Getty Center, Los Angeles,” The Burlington Magazine, December 2006, 844.
[12] John Coplans, Ellsworth Kelly (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1971), 28.

IMAGE CREDIT: Installation view of Form into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, February 18 – April 29, 2018.

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