Arts / Museums

Austin’s Most Serene Retreat — Striking New Ellsworth Kelly ‘Chapel’ is a Tucked Away Treasure

Step Inside a Rainbow

BY // 03.07.18
photography Courtesy of the Blanton Museum of Art

Everybody loves Austin. As much as I, a die hard Dallasite, would like to hate Austin, I love it. I hate how much other people love it and don’t appreciate the fact that Dallas’ arts scene is actually way better, but whatever, I still love Austin. And, like I said, so does everybody.

It’s bursting at the seams – and it’s about to get a huge influx of visitors for SXSW, which starts Friday.

If you’re one of the festival goers headed to town this weekend, allow me to recommend a serene retreat from the madness: Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin. The artist’s final work and only building is newly open at the Blanton Museum of Art on the University of Texas campus.

The 2,715-square-foot structure, adorned with stained glass and marble, was first envisioned for a private commission in 1986. Three decades and a change of plans later, construction began on the UT campus in 2015, two months before Kelly’s death.

The building is not technically a chapel, but no other title befits it as well. It’s a simple, double-barrel-vaulted building of white stucco, sitting in a grassy nook of the bustling college campus. From the outside, Austin is pretty, bright, simple.

Things become more complex when you step inside.

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Colored-glass windows form a sunburst on one wall, a ring of squares on another, and a grid above the entrance. These become the focal point, spilling rainbows onto the stark white walls as sunlight streams through.

In the center of the building, where an altar would be if this were a chapel, stands one of Kelly’s striking totem sculptures. Fourteen marble panels are spaced out on the surrounding walls – the artist’s interpretation of the stations of the cross. But, as Kelly’s longtime partner Jack Shear explained to The New York Times, “It’s a chapel really dedicated to creativity… It’s a secular chapel.” Think of the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

Read about Houston gallerist Hiram Butler and his vital role in making Austin happen here.

The origins of the work are further explored in Form into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Austin,’ on view at the Blanton until April 29. The exhibition includes original models of the building, early paintings by Kelly and more. But even without any context, Austin is easy to enjoy.

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