What the artist’s newly-unveiled chapel in Austin, Texas, tells us about the origins of his practice
In 1951, Ellsworth Kelly returned to Chartres. On his first visit, he had been decked in green fatigues, as a member of the US military’s ‘Ghost Army’, responsible for designing camouflage and field decoys. Allied bombs had left the French town a rubble heap, but – for one general’s defiance – spared its magnificent gothic cathedral. Now in civilian drag, and studying art on the GI Bill, Kelly was able to stand in the church’s impressive nave and stare up at its kaleidoscopic windows. Sunlight cast their colours on the quiet stone interior: crimson and sapphire, marigold and mauve.
Six decades later, one of those rose windows has resurfaced in Kelly’s final work, completed this February, three years after his death. Austin (2015), located at the Blanton Museum of Art on the University of Texas, Austin campus, is a modest cruciform chapel, too small for a hypothetical congregation. There are no pews to seat them. Instead, the work is a devotional to light, with three large, multi-panelled windows of mouth-blown coloured glass. The north transept borrows its tumbling diamond pattern from the corresponding window at Chartres, while its colours derive from an RYB wheel, representing the visible spectrum. Like a safe’s dial, the rotation of its forms may unlock the core of Kelly's philosophy of perception.
Trace a wine stain on a paper tablecloth. Photograph a shadow on the wall. Draw your finger along a beam of light, cast by window blinds. How can such a simple exercise be so sublime? That question drove Kelly, an avid sketcher and photographer of ephemeral patterns. In his paintings, he sought to distill these chance moments while removing traces of his own hand. Back in Paris, Kelly joined together two monochrome canvas panels, producing Black/White (1951), which, he argued, ‘freed form from ground’, transferring the ground from the canvas onto the wall itself. The painting became not a flat image, but an object hung on a flat wall – emphasizing its material conditions without the slightest subjective gesture. This was radical for a non-figurative postwar painter, who, upon his return to New York three years later, was spurned by the abstract expressionists. How could art be both abstract and referential, emphatically flat yet motioning clearly in three dimensions?
It was unusually cold in central Texas on the weekend of Austin's opening, and the sky was a soft grey pall. With so little available sunlight, I worried the chapel might not ‘work’; indeed, there were no spectral Kelly forms projected across its interior. Instead, I witnessed something far ghostlier: the blending of each window's hue, like a Tauba Auerbach print. Fiery reds melted to cool purples and emeralds. Edges dissolved, including my own. Twelve black and white marble diptychs hang on the walls – the Stations of the Cross in abstract, like Kelly’s black and white collages from the 1960s, realized in a classic baroque medium. (Kelly sourced his white marble from the same Carrera quarry as Michelangelo.) I pressed close to the panels, looking for the luminous reflections of each window shape in their black and white registers, watching each vibrant form transmute into darkness, then light. A soft glow brightened the 18-foot redwood Totem (2015) installed in the chapel's shadowed apse. Such Catholic references may seem strange for a self-proclaimed gay atheist, but the interplay of their mute, polished surfaces gives light a mysterious solidity. A kind of spectral presence.
Neolithic builders saw architecture as a telescope, whose purpose was to shape and orient light. The entrance to Newgrange, a prehistoric monument in Ireland, was designed to align with the rising sun on the winter solstice. Kelly was no astronomer, and his chapel accounts for chance occurrences: the clash of odd colours, the collision of stretched geometric forms. No two days are alike, nor any two seasons. But the work taps into the emotional underpinnings of sun worship, stripping religious liturgy from spiritual enlightenment.
‘The way the view through the rungs of a chair changes when you move even the slightest bit – I want to capture some of that mystery in my work,’ Kelly wrote in a 1991 essay for Aperture. You don't have to be religious to find that divine. Or, as Yve Alain Bois once put it, ‘what is perhaps unique about this artist's studio is that the grail he sought was his own effacement.’ The magic of chance is no man's to master, a fact in which Kelly revelled. When I return to Austin, though its colours and forms are Kelly's own, the work I experience will be a different play of light and architecture altogether: his final work aglow with everlasting life.
Main image: Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015 (East façade), artist-designed building with installation of coloured glass windows, black and white marble panels, and redwood totem, 18.3 x 22.3 x 8 m. Courtesy: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation