The spirit of Ellsworth Kelly lives on in his Austin chapel

The spirit of Ellsworth Kelly lives on in his Austin chapel

From Michelangelo and Matisse to Rothko and Turrell, many iconic artists have answered the call to create a compelling chapel. American abstract painter Ellsworth Kelly adds to the canon with the newly opened Austin chapel.

Kelly, who passed away at age 92 in 2015, gifted the design to the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas with the stipulations that his exact plans be realised: the building would be permanent, widely accessible to the public, and well maintained. ‘We worked with Ellsworth for about three years on it, collaborating with the architects and figuring out everything down to the minutiae to make sure his intentions large and small were captured,’ says Blanton director Simone Wicha, who was instrumental in bringing Austin to the museum.

Dappled light comes through the coloured glass windows of Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin atheist chapel

Detail of Austin, 2015, by Ellsworth Kelly. © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

The luminous 252 sq m grey limestone building features hand-blown coloured glass windows, a soaring curved redwood ‘totem’, and 14 black-and-white marble panels. The project was originally commissioned for a collector in Santa Barbara in the 1980s, but Ellsworth ultimately decided he did not want it on private land, so the plans were put aside until a museum board member brought it to Wicha’s attention. ‘Austin is a joyful city, a very friendly, creative city. Ellsworth wanted this work to bring joy to people, to provide a place where they could find calm,’ she says.

Carter Foster, deputy director for curatorial affairs, curated the opening exhibition, ‘Form into Spirit’. ‘If you know Ellsworth’s work, the building comes from motifs and forms he’s been exploring his whole career: totems, black and white, colour grid, and spectrum,’ explains Foster. ‘My idea is that people could go into the building and understand, “Oh, he has been doing these ideas for a long time.”’

‘Form into Spirit’ features work in all of these themes, including prints from Kelly’s 1970s Romanesque series and two colour spectrum collages the artist made in France in the 1950s. In addition to the permanent totem in the chapel, Foster included several other wooden sculptures. ‘The totem has this magical relationship to the building,’ says Foster. ‘It is the focal point, but it also leads your eye up to the ceiling.’

The building’s curving white forms and glowing stained glass windows – the first time the artist’s colours have been rendered in glass – create an ethereal, memorable space. Wicha says: ‘It is hard to describe, but nothing replaces the experience of being in there: the materials, the way the light hits, it needs to be seen in person. It is worth coming to Austin just to visit this art and get a breakfast taco... what more could you want?’