The Making of Austin

Curator Carter Foster on Ellsworth Kelly's art building

If you want the lowdown on artist Ellsworth Kelly and his final work – and masterwork – Austin, why not go to the man with an official work of Kelly's on his skin? That would be Carter E. Foster, whose forearm tattoo of four colored squares was actually designed by the artist and given an inventory number in his catalog of works.

Photos by John Anderson

Kelly created the tattoo at the invitation of Foster, who was close enough to be a friend of the artist but is also a scholar of his work. That's made him extremely valuable to the Blanton Museum of Art as it shepherded Kelly's only design for a freestanding building – a project that was originally created for a Hollywood television producer in the Eighties but wasn't built – from concept to reality. In 2016, just six months after Kelly's death at age 92 but with Austin's completion still almost two years away, Foster joined the Blanton staff as Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Prints and Drawings. Among his first major assignments: curating an exhibition that chronicles the creation and construction of Ellsworth Kelly's Austin. That exhibition, "Form Into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly's Austin," opened when Austin itself did and will be on view at the Blanton through April 29. In the busy days before both openings, Foster took time out to discuss Austin's origins; its remarkable stained-glass windows, 18-foot-tall redwood totem, and 14 black and white marble panels; and what Foster hopes people will take from it.

Austin Chronicle: Is it true that even after the original plans for the project fell through in the Eighties, Kelly kept the model in his studio?

Carter Foster: Absolutely. He was also an artist who never threw anything away. Oh, he kept everything, but he absolutely kept the model. What I saw when I first heard of the project was the model that’s actually now in the exhibition.

AC: So what was it that kept that idea of realizing the building alive over so many years?

CF: He never really conceived of anything quite like this before or since. He was always interested in how his work related to architecture. There’s a famous quote early on in his career where he says, “I want my paintings to be the wall, not be on the wall.” So he thought in terms of architectural scale and the relationship between art and architecture very much. When he had the chance to design this building for Douglas Cramer in the Eighties, this sort of architectural pavilion in his vineyard, it was a chance for him to bring together a lot of those concerns.

AC: Did he have faith that someone would eventually pick up on it?

CF: I mean, he never gave up in that he kept it in his studio. And he wasn’t somebody who hid stuff, so people would come to visit him and he thought it was an interesting project. He absolutely did hope that someone would do it. But I think he was also very particular about where it would go. One of the reasons that it didn’t happen in the Eighties was that he didn’t want it on private land and all the things that go along with that, like what’s going to happen to it in the future. He wanted it to be at a place where it was going to have permanence. The fact that [with the Blanton] it was going to be at a public university helped reassure him that it would be cared for in perpetuity and that it wouldn’t become anything other than what it was. Because it’s a total work of art, there is nothing you can change about it. It can’t become a building where you have weddings suddenly. It’s an artwork and it has to be treated like that. I think he was reassured of that, and that’s why he agreed to move ahead here.

AC: What do we gain from seeing Kelly’s work in three dimensions as opposed to two?

CF: I think what you gain is being completely in his world. He was able to create a totally immersive environment of just his aesthetic and his artworks, so when you walk into Austin it’s like walking into his mind and being able to understand an environment totally controlled by him. This is the only time he ever got to really do that. Some artists, like James Turrell [creator of the Skyspace works] have made a career of doing that, but that wasn’t Ellsworth. He was a different type of artist. But given his long concerns with architecture and space, it does seem like a perfect realization.

Also, there are two significant things in Austin that were new to him: He’d never done works in marble or stone before, so the 14 marble panels are a first for him. And the other thing is light. All painters in a sense think about light and depict light, and his works are incredibly luminous, but they’re not made of actual light. The way those windows [in Austin] create light in the space is one of the most magical things about the building. And the fact that it’s time-based, that it changes constantly with the intensity and direction of the sun, unfolding over time, over the course of a calendar year, those were all new things for him.

AC: I wondered if he ever explicitly addressed that aspect of the work.

CF: He definitely knew he was setting that up as a situation. He once said to me, “What I do is set up situations for looking.” Which I think is really insightful. In some ways, it’s a very simple building: two intersecting barrel vaults – classical forms that have been used for thousands of years all over the world. A grid and two circles, one circle made up of squares in a circle and one made up of rectangles, these very simple geometric elements with bright colors. So it’s really the interaction of all those things together that makes the building so special.

AC: I had the thought that it’s so simple, it’s almost too simple – which means that it’s not simple at all.

CF: Right. And sometimes getting to simplicity and purity is the hardest thing to do. You know, some people see a black square next to a white square and think, “Okay, why is that art?” And sometimes that is hard to explain. If you look at the black and white section in the show, it looks deceptively simple, but these are forms and things he’s dealt with his entire career. I mean, the early works date from the Fifties, and he’s exploring these forms until he dies. He found forms that he liked early on, and he just kept doing themes and variations on those forms. And that endlessly fascinated him. It never bored him to try another way to do a color grid or try another way to do a totem or try another way to do a painting in black and white only. Those may seem reductive to people – they are reductive! – but there’s infinite variation in that. And it allowed him to hone his looking so carefully, because he was used to working with those forms he knew so well.

AC: Why did he title the marble panels Stations of the Cross?

CF: He was really interested in European art. He loved Romanesque and medieval architecture. He had this formative period in France. He went to churches all the time, made a list of churches that he wanted to see. There’s a drawing in the exhibition in which he went to a church and drew the Stations of the Cross from the art that was on view. I think he was looking for something serial that would make sense in [the building]. He certainly was aware of Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross, and Matisse did a chapel in Provence, France, that also had a black-and-white version of Stations of the Cross. But I think more than anything, he was looking for a way to tie together the space, so he came up with these panels in a consistent format with only the use of black and white. Now, in the original design in the 1980s, he made a drawing where he called [the marble panels] Stations of the Cross, but when the building became Austin, he stopped calling them Stations of the Cross. He called them the black and white marble panels. [Their placement] was something that concerned him deeply. And that was also there from the very beginning. You’ll see in the exhibition the panels are essentially the same in the model from 1987 as they are now. And we have a sketchbook with the drawings that he made to send his fabricator in the Eighties and those same drawings were used when they were actually fabricated more recently.

AC: So what was Kelly’s process in choosing the materials in Austin: the exterior stone, the wood for the totem, the marble for the panels, and so on?

CF: He worked with various people to get access to types of materials that he could consider for this building. For example, with the stone on the outside, he described what he wanted to the architects and they were charged with going to find the stone and sent samples to him, and even within those samples – within the quarry where those stones come from there were different types of patterns, they call it “blooming,” I think, and there was some color variation – he was able to choose. With the glass, he had chosen the firm that the Blanton worked with – Mayer of Munich, which has been around more than 150 years – in the Eighties because they were so well-known for working with artists. And he decided that mouthblown glass was going to be essential to this piece, not only because it references the history of stained glass in churches and other places, but it gives the glass a certain texture and feel that anything created with other methods doesn’t have. When the light shines through the windows and hits the walls, it looks like watercolors. It’s this blurry effect; you don’t get these sharp edges. And that’s so crucial to how the light works and the whole space feels. With the wooden totem, he was very aware of it having a connection to the natural world and having a pattern that he had no control over – the pattern was in the wood already, for hundreds of years in the case of a redwood.

So he was deeply aware of all that and would go back and forth with his fabricators, and there was a relationship [with them] where trust had been built up over a long period of time. He was so decisive and so particular and very much in command of what he wanted. This was someone who was also a brilliant draftsman and painter. Some people probably think that his paintings were fabricated, but he painted all his paintings himself. He could not work any other way because he had to have his hand on them. And he mixed his own colors, too. He was deeply aware of the material processes when he was drawing and painting, so when he was working with fabricators, there was also this intimate involvement.

AC: Was it ever an issue for Kelly to leave some of this work to others when he was so hands-on?

CF: He didn’t leave it to other people, really. For example, with the glass, Ellsworth didn’t work in glass, he wasn’t a glassmaker, but he was a colorist, and the glass studio sent extensive arrays of samples to his studio so he could make different colors by combining different sheets of glass. In a way, it’s like them sending him paint, and he mixes the paint except he’s mixing with panes of glass. So he really was creating the colors he wanted. So in a way Ellsworth didn’t touch anything in the building but it’s him fully.

AC: Anything about the work that has surprised you, that you didn’t expect?

CF: The fact that when you walk in, it feels bigger than than it looks on the outside. I did not expect that. And the play of light inside and the fact that it really does unfold over time and changes, the way the windows transmit these shapes onto the different surfaces and the way everything interacts … I knew that was going to happen, but when you actually feel it – and you both feel it and see it – that's really magical.

AC: How will it be conserved? Are there plans in place?

CF: It’s a building that is public, so it has to have fire codes and climate control systems, so it was set up to preserve itself in that sense. Originally, when it was [to be built] in California, it was not going to have any lighting inside it, it was not going to have any HVAC systems, and it was going to be poured concrete with white stucco on the outside. That wouldn’t have held up in Texas, so when it became clear that we were going to build it in Austin, one of the reasons that stone was considered for the outside was that it would stand up to the environment here. And the walls contain the security and climate control system, so the walls had to be thicker. So setting it up so it could function as a building was part of the preservation of it.

Obviously, the windows are glass and they can break, so we have backups. The wooden totem’s vulnerable because it’s wood. The black and white marble panels are pretty durable, but the worry is that someone would either intentionally or unintentionally damage them by rubbing up against them or something. But that can happen in our painting galleries, too. Unfortunately, people do touch things. So if you want to emphasize that people shouldn’t touch things when they come here, you’d be doing us a good public service. You want to preserve the beauty of the space as Ellsworth created it.

AC: What do you hope people will take away from their encounters with Austin?

CF: I hope it’s a place of inspiration, a place of calm, a place where people can go when they’ve had a bad day and feel better and understand the value that ambitious artworks have in society. Art can be about the creation of knowledge and help us understand our place in the universe, and that’s a really good thing. And there’s a spiritual value in the appreciation of beauty, which is what I think Ellsworth was really attuned to. One hopes people will just be uplifted, that it will make a good day great and bad day better.

"Form Into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly's Austin"
Feb. 18-April 29, Blanton Museum of Art,

Talk by Blanton Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs Carter E. Foster: Sun., Feb. 18, 2pm

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