Houston’s Rothko Chapel fuses art and architecture to create a contemplative space that some visitors experience as spiritual. Even the less spiritually inclined describe it as a highly intensified art viewing experience. Now a second artist’s chapel is coming to Texas, designed by another great abstract expressionist, Ellsworth Kelly. Originally designed in 1986 for a private collector, but never realized, the 2,700-square-foot structure will be the first-ever Kelly-designed building. It will be built thanks to the efforts of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin, which will also maintain the space and use it for study.
Blanton Museum director Simone Wicha paired Kelly with San Antonio-based Overland Partners to refine and execute the design. “It was developed conceptually, but not schematically. We have been working with Ellsworth to take the concept model and make it a viable building for a university campus public space, while making sure it remains true to his vision,” Wicha told AN. The Blanton has raised over $7 million to build the project, with a total goal of $15 million including an endowment.
Kelly’s chapel features a cruciform plan, each arm of which terminates with a colored glass installation that will bring multi-hued light into the stone interior. One installation features square windows, each of which is a single color, arranged in a grid. Another includes slit like openings arranged in a circular formation. A third has square colored windows positioned as diamonds arranged in a circle. Facing the entry, a niche will contain a totem sculpture.
Kelly, born in 1923, is known as one of the major American abstract artists working across painting, printmaking, and sculpture. His work spans Minimalism, Color Field painting, and pure abstraction without being bounded by any one movement. The chapel, however, evokes the six years Kelly spent in France in the late 1940s to the mid 50s, before he rose to international prominence. The artist was particularly taken with Romanesque architecture, which is clearly reflected in the chapel’s barrel vaults. In addition to being his first building, this will also be the first time Kelly, now 92, has worked in glass. The Franz Mayer studio of Munich, Germany, will fabricate the glass. Kelly and the design team will use a combination of two layers of glass to create the perfect color.
Though the granite-clad chapel was conceived for a location in California, Kelly rechristened the project Austin in recognition of the particular qualities of Texas light, which will change the experience of the space.
Though Austin is entirely Kelly’s design, Overland Partners is bringing essential expertise to the project. “In order to add insulation and create a cavity in the wall, the walls had to become thicker, so the building also became taller. We’ve worked closely with Ellsworth to translate his design intent,” said Rick Archer, a principal at Overland Partners. “One of the challenges of working with artists is learning to remove yourself completely from the design. This is Ellsworth’s piece.”
According to Wicha, the museum hopes to break ground on the project soon, and expects it to be completed in about a year.