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Meeting place: Austin Chapel, Ellsworth Kelly

With Meeting Place we present the wonderful collaboration of four artists in spaces dedicated to meditation, retreat and reflection: Henri Matisse at the The Rosary Chapel in Vence in the south of France; Mark Rothko at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas; Miquel Barceló at the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament in the Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca and Ellsworth Kelly at the Austin Chapel in the Blanton Museum, Texas.

Outside Austin Chapel © Victoria Sambunaris for New York Times

In 1944 Ellsworth Kelly (Newburgh, 1923 – Manhattan, 2015) joined the army and was sent to Paris as a soldier. Kelly, who had only spent a few semesters at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, studying art, possibly had no idea of the vast impact this country would have on his life and future work. Over the next few years Kelly would delve deeply into French culture, fascinated especially by Romanesque and Cistercian architecture. The interstitial spaces, stained glass windows, and stone geometry of Chartes and Notre Dame resonated loudly on him, opening up a channel in his work toward the exploration of light, color, and space.

After returning to the United States for a while, Kelly decided to come back to France to continue painting, working and nourishing himself with its culture; from 1948 to 1954 he traveled around France and Europe and developed important artistic and social relationships that enhanced his creative ambitions. In this sense, although they never met personally, Henri Matisse’s work had a great influence on Kelly’s work. Matisse had built a chapel in Vence, in the south of France, which Kelly visited. The vibrant shades of the three stained glass windows, in which he used only intense yellow, green, and blue, their intentional reflection and light effects on the floor, and his use of a palette and lines inspired by Mediterranean nature, were elements that left a trace on Kelly. Unlike Matisse -who was advised by the architect Auguste Perret- Kelly designed and had a thorough control over the whole process and  implemented his very clear vision of the architectural structure of the chapel, its materials and finishes.

Outside Austin Chapel © Victoria Sambunaris for New York Times

Austin Chapel was conceived in 1968, when television producer Douglas S. Cramer asked the artist to design a major work of art for his California vineyard. However, the project was never carried out. Nearly 50 years later, the artist donated the original design to the Blanton Museum at the University of Austin. The chapel opened in 2018.

The architecture of this chapel, its semi-circular forms, barrel vaulting, little ornamentation, and overall sense of compact solidity remind us of the impact Romanesque architecture had on Kelly. 

Although his practice was always linked to architecture and space, the Austin Chapel was the first and only building he ever designed. Its interior light is defined by three stained glass windows and changes slowly but constantly with the intensity and angle of the sun, which makes the work sensitive to time and atmospheric conditions, in sync with nature. Kelly was a careful observer of the natural world, the birds, his environment, and was deeply aware of how perception can transform ordinary things into extraordinary, even spiritual experiences. 

The Austin Chapel is a contemporary temple, a work where his knowledge of ancient and modern art converges with a refined creative process marked by intuition.

Inside Austin Chapel © Victoria Sambunaris for New York Times

Click here for more information about Austin Chapel