Fabrication of Austin’s artistic elements

Austin In Depth

CHAPTER 6: Fabrication of Austin’s artistic elements

Stained Glass

Austin’s stained glass is one of its most striking and complex features. Three large, multi-light windows create a play of radiant, shape-shifting colors on the interior surfaces, a play that constantly changes with the position and intensity of the sun. There is thus a time-based aspect crucial to the experience of this artwork, a cycle of light that unfolds over the four seasons and the calendar year. At night, viewed from the outside, the windows emit a jewel-like glow. The glass was created by Franz Mayer of Munich, Inc., a studio in Germany founded in 1847 who specialize in working with artists. The firm is one of the best known in its field and had been contacted in the 1980s about working on the Cramer pavilion. Wicha reached out to Mayer long before there was certainty that it would be realized at the Blanton. The colors of the glass had not been fully identified or translated into glass material at any prior point in the project’s history. The colored glass would, of course, be the central element of the building given Kelly’s legacy as a master colorist, and achieving the color would require nuanced adjustments as colors were perfected. The firm’s current head, Michael Mayer (a direct descendant of the founder), agreed to work closely with Kelly and the Blanton on research and development while the museum continued to explore the viability of the project on various other fronts. This allowed for the necessary lead time for Kelly to finalize the colors before he passed away.

In the original conception for the proposed cast-concrete Cramer pavilion, the walls were thinner, and the windows were planned with single panes, but a more complicated system was necessarily devised because of Austin’s thicker walls. Each individual window light is created from the combination of four different sheets of stained glass, each a slightly different hue of the same color, housed in two different layered sandwich-like units of glass plates. One unit is flush with the interior walls, one with the exterior, creating a small box between them which accommodates for the walls’ thickness. The light transmitted through these layers combines to create one single color. Crucially, the glass is hand-blown, giving it a handmade texture and look wholly appropriate given the building’s art historical roots. Other, more industrial methods of creating colored glass were rejected early on, and both Mayer and Kelly knew hand-blown glass alone could create the textural variation Kelly wanted. However, this presented a technical challenge, since the sizes of the panes are near the maximum of what is possible using this process. Hand-blown glass is limited, literally, by how much weight an individual glassblower can handle as they blow a blob of molten colored glass into a cylinder while turning it constantly [figure 49]. Once blown, the cylinder is then cut and heated again in a kiln to be flattened into a sheet [figure 50]. According to Mayer, Austin’s glass panes are the largest hand-blown sheets ever created by his firm. In transmitted light, they turn the hard geometry of the actual windows into soft, blurry pools of colored light that move spectacularly and slowly across Austin’s interior.

The creation of the colors was developed through constant dialogue with the artist and the Blanton. Mayer knew it was crucial to understanding Kelly’s own process and approach to color, which is completely instinctive and intuitive rather than theoretical or scientific. Creating color in hand-blown glass is difficult and tricky, requiring a kind of alchemy in which metal oxides mix with the molten glass to create various hues. As the glass expands when blown, it can be quite difficult to maintain color consistency. It was thus a fairly lengthy process to pin down each color in each window, given all the variables. A lengthy back-and-forth with Kelly occurred, during which the colors for the glass evolved through the review of five sets of colored glass samples. The process began when Kelly’s studio sent to Mayer samples of the theatre lighting gels he had used in an early model for the Cramer pavilion. Mayer matched these in blown glass, and this first set was sent to Spencertown in the summer of 2014 and was set up in one of Kelly’s garage windows so the light effects could be viewed and understood. Second and third sets of glass followed in close succession that fall. [figure 51figure 52figure 53]

In April 2015—a few months after Kelly signed the contract with the university—Mayer brought the fourth set of glass to Austin to evaluate the spectrum in the Texas light and to finalize the type and number of layers of glass used [figure 54figure 55]. At the end of this long process, Jack Shear and Simone Wicha traveled to Munich on multiple occasions to approve the final product at the Mayer studio. [figure 56]


Both the wooden Totem and the fourteen marble panels for Austin were fabricated under the direction of Carlson Arts LLC in Sun Valley, California, near Los Angeles. Its founder, Peter Carlson, had a forty-year working relationship with Kelly, and he and his current business partner, John Baker, were involved with Austin from the beginning. Carlson had also been consulted on the project’s first iteration with Douglas Cramer in the 1980s, so he was long familiar with the art Kelly conceived for it. The Totem is 18 feet tall and made of California old growth redwood, sourced from a small, family-run mill in Crescent City, California. Redwood logs were so abundant at the height of the logging industry in the nineteenth century that they were used to fill ravines to make transport easier. Some of those logs ended up buried in riverbeds, the place from which Austin’s Totem came. The tree itself was hundreds of years old when felled, and trees of such age have richer, denser graining than new-growth trees.

The artist had worked with redwood before and had used it for similar concave Totems in the 1990s. Since that time, such wood had become scarcer. When the Blanton and Kelly were still in early negotiations about the project, Carlson found two suitably sized logs. Shear offered to put them on hold for the museum in case the project was to move forward—one as a backup—since the appearance of the wood once milled is unpredictable. This early lead time fortuitously allowed the wood the appropriate amount of time it needed to dry.

Two thick planks were cut from the chosen log, and these then had to be air dried slowly and carefully over many months to avoid cracking. Once the moisture content was at acceptably low levels, the chosen plank was ready for milling. This was done on a gantry mill, a large, robust machine capable of both scale and precision within thousandths of an inch. The plank was milled to a flat surface on one side and inspected. Kelly chose his materials carefully for their specific qualities—in this case, the wood’s history in the world and how this is manifested materially is an important part of the piece’s presence—but too much visual distraction in the grain would not be acceptable. Side one turned out to be fine, so the plank was flipped, slabbed out to the proper net thickness and checked again. With both sides looking acceptable, the profile was then cut. The precise area on the slab that yielded the Totem was chosen by positioning a template [figure 57]. Like all of the artist’s Totems, this one is defined mathematically by the segment of a circle with a specific radius: in this case 3,079 inches. The cutting is guided very precisely through a computer program.

Black and White Panels

The fourteen black and white panels are a first in Kelly’s body of work: the only time he ever chose to work in marble. As with the Totem sculpture they surround in Austin, the materiality of these works is crucial both to their visual presence and conceptual function within the overall context of the building. Inspired by art history, Kelly carefully chose materials whose own history and age are part of their visual presence—it was crucial to him that the panels look like stone even as they manifest his compositions. And this type of stone—marble—has an incredibly rich role in the history of art and architecture, a crucial reason the artist wished to use it. Early on in the process, the artist requested that Carlson Arts LLC work to procure the material and oversee the production of these pieces. The marble was sourced by John Baker of Carlson Arts, an architect with extensive experience working with stone. Kelly made the selection from samples brought to his studio. The white marble came from the celebrated quarry in Carrara, Italy, famous as a source for both artists and architects, especially during the Renaissance (in particular, Michelangelo). In fact, a section of the quarry normally closed for excavation was reopened especially for this project. The black marble is known as “Belgique Noir” and comes from a small quarry in Namur, in the Wallonia region of Belgium. Kelly had recorded the precise measurements and proportions of each panel (they measure 40 by 40 inches each) in a large sketchbook from 1989; he made no changes to these as Austin was evolving, but Carlson’s team did make a mock-up of a panel out of painted fiberboard so Kelly could play with the distance each would be set off from the wall and so he could adjust the positioning of the painted aluminum mounting plates. Kelly determined the precise spacing between each panel using a scale model of Austin in his studio [figure 46].

The fabrication of the marble panels was done by a family firm in Siderno, Italy, a small coastal town in the Reggio Calabria region, under Baker’s supervision. The raw slabs of both black and white marble were about 4 by 9 feet each, and Baker used templates to select the areas from which the individual panel pieces would be cut. From dialogue with Kelly, he knew the artist wanted the panels to feel like stone but not contain visually distracting occlusions or veining. This was a delicate balance—every time the stone was honed, it could potentially reveal something unwanted. Kelly also desired a matte rather than a reflective surface. Once each panel was formed and bonded, the surface was honed one final time in order to make the separate pieces absolutely level with one another.

IMAGE CREDIT: Video still of glass being blown, Munich, Germany, 2016.

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