Austin In Depth
CHAPTER 9: Director’s Message
A Message From The Blanton’s Director
Bringing Austin to Austin
Simone Jamille Wicha, Director, Blanton Museum of Art
In the early 1950s Ellsworth Kelly wrote in a letter to his friend, the composer John Cage:
My collages are only ideas for things much larger—things to cover walls. In fact all the things I’ve done I would like to see much larger. I am not interested in painting as it has been accepted for so long—to hang on the walls of houses as pictures. To hell with pictures—they should be the wall.
Almost seventy years later, this dream is made material through the realization of Austin. Envisioned by Kelly as “a place of calm and light,” Austin is the only building he ever designed, as well as his most monumental work of art.
Austin allows visitors to physically enter a work by Ellsworth Kelly. We may be drawn to its forms—the striking presence of a eighteen-foot redwood totem and the fourteen black-and-white marble panels that protrude sculpturally from the walls; to its colors—the brilliant tones cast as light shines through textured, hand-blown glass windows; or to the space itself—from the curved soaring ceilings to the white walls that precisely connect each element.
Austin unites the ideas and motifs Kelly developed throughout his career and takes them in entirely new directions. The colored glass windows, for instance, are the first Kelly spectrums to be translated into glass, and the black-and-white panels are his first works in marble. One of the great highlights of this project was watching the artist establish the colors for the glass, which I witnessed on several visits to his studio. During one conversation, Kelly expressed that “color is life, and life-giving.” Like many sacred spaces, Austin instills a sense of tranquility and joy, encouraging visitors to be in the present and temporarily leave everything else behind.
The story of Austin begins early in the artist’s career. As a student in Boston, Kelly was fascinated by medieval and Renaissance art, and when he went to Paris on the GI Bill in 1949, he began exploring Romanesque and Gothic churches and chapels. Their forms inspired some of his earliest mature paintings and drawings, and their influence never left him. Many years later, in 1987, a patron in California asked Kelly to design a chapel for his vineyard. The structure was never realized, but Kelly had conceptualized the work extensively through drawings and plans, and the present structure in Austin remains true to his original vision. Although inspired in part by religious iconography and architecture, Kelly envisioned Austin as a work of art and a space for contemplation rather than a functioning chapel. He also felt strongly that this major, unprecedented artistic statement must be stewarded, cared for, and available to a wide public. In the city of Austin, at the Blanton, Kelly found his site. He often titled his works after places to which they are connected, and this last great artwork is named for the city in which it stands.
Over a period of two years, we engaged in an in-depth conversation with Kelly, making a series of phone calls and visits to his studio in Spencertown, New York. Though Kelly had drawings and two handmade models from the 1987 commission, his architectural renderings needed to be translated into construction documents. The process also required resolving technical challenges inherent to creating a public museum building. Kelly ultimately made every aesthetic decision, from the scale, proportions, and orientation of the building to the type and arrangement of the exterior stone and even the texture of the grout used between the stones. On December 18, 2015, I called his studio to confirm the final details for the concept document, which captured all of his design decisions. I also let him know that construction for Austin was starting. Nine days later, he passed away.
This publication is about the construction of Austin and the evolution of Kelly’s ideas that inspired it, from the influences during his time studying in Paris in the 1940s, to the aesthetic decisions for Austin that Kelly made in the final weeks of his life. It also examines four of the motifs that Kelly explored throughout his career that relate to Austin—Spectrum, Black and White, Color Grid, and Totem.
Although Kelly never had the opportunity to walk through his masterpiece, he knew with certainty that it would be realized and that it was being built exactly as he envisioned. It is clear from how perfectly he modeled, drew, and detailed the space that he had a clear understanding of it in his mind. Austin is an embodiment of Kelly’s life work and feels utterly representative of his unique artistic point of view. What is most remarkable to me is how clearly Kelly imagined Austin. When I walked into the building after the walls were fully framed, I understood he had a genius not only for line, form, and color, but also for scale. The space feels absolutely right and, as with other masterpieces, like it could have been made no other way.
Everyone who has worked on this project—from the donors who immediately understood its significance to the many collaborators who brought their expertise to the development and construction—were unified by a single objective: to bring Kelly’s vision to life. While I knew at the outset that it would be complex to build Austin, the importance of the project left no doubt in my mind that we should do everything we could to see it through.
Austin opened to the public on February 18, 2018. This work of art has changed who we are as a community and how we see ourselves as a city. The work has quickly become a beacon of inspiration for our visitors, a destination for art lovers from around the world, and a cornerstone of Kelly’s important legacy.
Austin is Ellsworth Kelly’s final masterpiece. The project weaves together artistic ideas refined by one of the great modern American artists over a forty-year career. It also embodies an artist, who at the age of eighty-nine, was mastering new materials for the first time: glass, stone and architecture. We are immensely grateful that Ellsworth gifted the concept for Austin to the Blanton in 2015, giving us the chance to realize his most ambitious work. Beyond our gratitude for this generosity, I am personally moved that Ellsworth trusted us to work alongside him in the last years of his life as he carefully sorted through the many decisions of a complex and groundbreaking project.
While this work of art is singularly the vision of Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Shear’s dedication made Austin a reality. I am deeply grateful to Jack not only for his own generosity and trust, which ensured that the work found a home at the Blanton, but also for his insightful, joyful, and loyal ways. Without his partnership, this project would not be part of the Texas landscape. We also are grateful to the team at Ellsworth Kelly’s studio for all of their many efforts throughout the process, especially Mary Anne Lee, Eva Walters, Joe Yetto, and Nick Walters.
This project’s long history began with the television producer and arts patron Douglas S. Cramer, who initially commissioned Kelly to design the building that would become Austin in 1987. While the project was not realized at that time on Cramer’s property, the seed for this masterwork was planted in the artist’s mind. Being able to celebrate the opening of Austin at the Blanton forty years later with Doug and his partner, Hugh Bush, was meaningful for us all.
Accomplishing a project of this magnitude and complexity on a university campus can be a formidable task. Bill Powers, president of The University of Texas at Austin at the time, was always there to listen and help me think through challenges. He was a thoughtful partner who believed in the importance of art on campus, trusted my judgement, and instilled a great deal of confidence in me. He cared about this project deeply and its realization brought him great joy. After the building opened, he told me that the visit we made together to Kelly’s studio in 2015 was one of the highlights of his tenure as president.
I have been fortunate to work with a number of other great leaders at this university who were also important to the success of this project, especially President Greg Fenves, who stood with us as the museum broke ground on Austin and as we celebrated the grand opening. Former Provost Steve Leslie, who championed the project throughout, and former President Larry Faulkner, who has always been there to help guide this museum he so cherishes, both played important roles. The Board of Regents of the University of Texas System approved the project on May 13, 2015, providing essential authorization for us to move forward. The members of the Blanton National Leadership Board were passionate and important advocates.
To list everyone who worked on building Austin could easily fill pages. We had a tremendous and dedicated team, including Rick Archer, principal architect at Overland Projects and his team, and the many project managers at Linbeck Group, as well as countless skilled subcontractors. Thank you to Michal Mayer and his team at Franz Mayer of Munich, Inc. for fabricating the only Kelly windows in the world, and to Peter Carlson and John Baker of Carlson Arts LLC, for producing the marble panels and redwood totem.
Another person who deserves great recognition is Houston gallerist and UT alumnus Hiram Butler, who learned about the project in 2012 and brought it to his alma mater that year. The significance of his understanding the need to find a home for the project in the most timely manner, due to the artist’s advanced age, cannot be overstated.
A project of this ambition and scale will change the DNA of a museum, as this one has with the Blanton. It took every staff member’s smarts and dedication to successfully open Kelly’s Austin. It is a joy to watch the pride the Blanton staff takes in sharing this work of art with the public. I want to especially acknowledge Veronica Roberts, who played a critical role as I first explored the idea of the project, and helped develop a relationship with Kelly and his studio; Kim Theel and Dalia Azim, who oversaw myriad logistics for this project, from design through construction and beyond; Anna Berns, who managed the Campaign for Austin; Stacey Cilek, who handled the complicated contracts and financials of the project; Gabriela Truly and her team, who oversaw the complex installation of the glass, the redwood totem, and the marble sculptures; Carter E. Foster, who organized the thoughtful exhibition Form Into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin to complement the opening of Austin and wrote the informative history of the work that appears here, as well as the an essay in Ellsworth Kelly: Black and White, which was the first piece of scholarship about the work that I encountered when first considering the Blanton as a home for the project; and Carlotta Stankiewicz and her team, who led the development of this web publication.
The University of Texas at Austin and UT System’s construction and facilities teams were also essential; Bob Rawksi and Severine Halls, in particular, played key roles during design development. John Koegel provided generous guidance throughout the project.
In addition to bringing Austin to Austin, we set out to establish the Blanton as a center for Kelly scholarship. To that end, we are indebted to Ellsworth and Jack for gifting to the Blanton a tremendous group of sixty-seven works of art that relate to Austin. Their gift comprises some of Kelly’s earliest works made during his time in Paris in the 1940s, as well as works that relate directly to Austin—all of them help illuminate the conceptual and actual origins of the building. Especially significant is an architectural model of the project’s original design from 1986, along with numerous other drawings in which the artist worked out the concept and design in great detail during the mid 1980s. We are also deeply grateful to the other generous donors whose gifts of Kelly works have improved our holdings in significant ways: Douglas S. Cramer gifted exceptional examples of Kelly’s plant drawings made from the vineyard for which Austin was originally commissioned; Jan and Howard Hendler gave two relief sculptures; Jeanne and Michael Klein gifted a bronze sculpture and a painting; and David G. Booth gifted one of Kelly’s late paintings. It is a great honor for the Blanton to serve as a growing center for Kelly scholarship, and to be an important part of the legacy of an artist with such tremendous impact and influence.
While having a clear vision and a tremendous team were necessary to our success, without question this work would not be here today were it not for our many extraordinary funders. I’m endlessly grateful to Jeanne and Michael Klein, who first introduced the idea of the project to me, and Judy and Charles Tate, who quickly became ardent champions as well, for their generous financial support and for standing by the museum’s side as we navigated the course. We are also very grateful for the generosity of the university’s President’s Office and Longhorn Network, Suzanne Deal Booth and David G. Booth, Scurlock Foundation, Leslie and Jack S. Blanton, Jr., The Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston, Sally and Tom Dunning, Lowe Foundation, The Eugene McDermott Foundation, Stuart Stedman and Stedman West Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Elizabeth and Peter Wareing. Thank you as well to Janet and Wilson Allen, Judy and David Beck, Kelli and Eddy S. Blanton, Buena Vista Foundation, Sarah and Ernest Butler, Charles Butt, Mrs. Donald G. Fisher, Amanda and Glenn Fuhrman, Glenstone, Emily and Mitch Rales, Stephanie and David Goodman, Agnes Gund, Stacy and Joel Hock, The Ronald and Jo Carole Lauder Foundation, Matthew Marks, Emily Rauh Pulitzer, Lora Reynolds and Quincy Lee, Helen and Chuck Schwab, and Ellen and Steve Susman for their generous support.
On behalf of the Blanton, I extend my deepest gratitude to the visionary and passionate community that has come together to bring to life one of the most notable works of art of the 21st century. Together this team has forever changed the landscape of this university, this city, and our cultural heritage.