Ellsworth Kelly died in 2015, but his final work was unveiled only this past weekend. It is also likely the most ambitious work the American artist ever made: a 2,700-square-foot building loosely modeled after a Romanesque church on the grounds of the Blanton Museum in Austin, Texas.
“This is a game changer for this city and for Ellsworth Kelly, to have his most monumental work realized,” said Blanton director Simone Wicha. The museum raised $23 million for the project, which includes a $4 million endowment to conserve the work.
The Blanton has been developing the project since 2012, but it has actually been in the works for decades. Kelly originally intended to build the structure on the California vineyard of TV producer Douglas Cramer, who collected Kelly’s work and offered to commission it in the 1980s. But the artist ultimately decided the project was too important to him to place on private land, which could be sold—“and eventually did get sold,” according to Blanton curator Carter Foster.
The artist explored other potential sites over the years—the Menil Collection and Rice University in Houston, for instance, and Catholic University in Washington, DC—but none of them stuck. “I had the impression that at some other places people had tried to be too involved in design decisions,” Wicha said. “Ellsworth couldn’t do this by himself, but it was important that he make the decisions.”
The Blanton promised to run every last detail by the artist, who was then approaching 90, all the way down to the grout color. Kelly weighed in on the arrangement of each of the façade’s limestone blocks, the location and font of his signature, the color and thickness of the grout, and even the shape of the holes in the drainage grates. (He chose squares over circles.) Since the museum ultimately completed the project after the artist’s death, “I didn’t want anyone thinking that the museum made decisions that weren’t his,” Wicha said.
Kelly first became fascinated by the architecture of Romanesque and Cistercian cathedrals while stationed Paris during World War II. During the nearly seven years he remained in France, he sketched the cathedrals at Chartres and Notre Dame, showing particular interest in the interstitial spaces and the geometries of the stonework and monstrances. (A number of these early drawings are included in the exhibition “Form Into Spirit,” on view at the Blanton through April 29.)