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Ellsworth Kelly’s luminous synthesis of colour and architecture

Ellsworth Kelly’s luminous synthesis of colour and architecture

January 03
21:23 2019

If a landscape or a painting of an interior is something like a window on to a different world, what is an abstract painting? Is it a glimpse into an inner world? And while we can maybe imagine ourselves in a landscape, or with the sitter for a portrait in that same room, what would it feel like to be inside a hard-edged abstract painting?

The answer might just be inside a brilliant white structure standing beside the Blanton Museum in Austin, Texas. There, Ellsworth Kelly has realised an engaging synthesis of colour and architecture in a building that is not quite a chapel, not really a pavilion and certainly not a museum yet which embodies Kelly’s art better and more luminously than any of the myriad canvases or cultures scattered around the world’s galleries.

This odd little building, which seems part igloo and part mission chapel, was originally conceived as an installation for a vineyard belonging to Douglas Cramer, a TV producer responsible for, among other hits, Star Trek, Wonder Woman and Dynasty. Costs, however, defeated him and the idea hovered around the US, alighting at a few potential venues and with a few wealthy collectors, none of whom quite made it happen.

One proposal was that it might land near an obvious parallel, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, but it ended up in Austin, a place Kelly had no particular connections with but which was willing to come up with the $23m needed to build it. It finally materialised at a site outside the Blanton Museum in the centre of the city and you’d never know it was never meant for that particular spot. With a clear correspondence to the pinkish dome of the state capitol and, in its chunky, elemental form, a relationship to the Brutalist buildings of the university which frame it, the little white temple of light positively shines against the fiercely blue sky which so seduced many of Kelly’s friends and contemporaries, from Donald Judd and Dan Flavin to Rothko himself.

The building is carved from Spanish stone

Standing in the bland, grassy plaza, the Kelly is a curious structure. It contains memories of a mausoleum or a church on a Greek island. At moments it looks like a thing sculpted from ice or soap, at others like a white-painted bunker. In fact it is meticulously carved from Spanish stone and into its smooth surface are cut a series of geometric openings set with coloured glass. The cruciform plan immediately recalls a chapel but Kelly was described by his husband Jack Shear as a “transcendental anarchist” so the obvious comparison with Matisse’s chapel at Saint-Paul de Vence doesn’t quite work. Even Rothko’s chapel in Houston is a nominally (if non-denominationally) sacred space.

This is, instead, a temple to colour. Yet its roots do lie in religion. Its form, Shear tells me, derives from the artist’s love of the Romanesque churches of France, which affected him deeply in his youth and again when the couple visited them on European holidays. In the building’s almost naive, vaulted form you can easily divine the solid stonework of the Cistercians, as well as an echo of those stripped, sacred spaces, smoothed by masons’ tools and the wear of bodies and hands over hundreds of years.

The Texan sun burns through the windows and casts shimmering colours across the floors, the walls and any visitors. The reds and oranges seem to sizzle, while the blues and greens cast a cooling tone; as the colours move around the walls, they act as a kind of clock until twilight, when the building flips into reverse and the glass begins to glow from within.

At twilight, the building begins to glow from within

If the religious analogy needed reinforcing, it is there on the walls. A series of black and white marble panels stands in for stations of the cross (a riposte, surely, to Barnett Newman’s stark striped monochrome works at the Washington National Gallery).

The comparison with the Rothko chapel is useful because despite the power of Rothko’s brooding canvases, they are at the mercy of an ill-conceived and poorly lit building. Rothko died before the chapel was completed, just as Kelly did not live to see this Texan realisation of his work. But in making the art integral to the architecture, he has ensured that it will be seen in exactly the way he intended.

Hanging around inside, watching a gentle trickle of visitors entranced by the shifting colours, trying to take selfies of the refracted spots on the floor or the spectrum manifesting itself across them, I couldn’t help thinking of the deputy director of curatorial affairs at the Blanton Museum, Carter Foster. Foster has a Kelly tattoo on his right forearm, a series of four coloured squares at jauntily irregular angles which even has its own artist’s inventory number. It feels a far easier, but no less pleasing kind of immersion to wander among the candy-coloured lights cast by the windows, the contours of your clothes softening Kelly’s exquisite hard-edged abstraction.

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