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A Glimpse Into Ellsworth Kelly’s Beautiful, Unpretentious Last Work

“Austin” is the legendary artist’s first building.

It’s easy to sigh at people who take selfies in front of art. (*Clutches pearls* How gauche!) But in front of Ellsworth Kelly’s last, posthumously completed work, a temple-style building that opened this week at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, people look natural. Scroll through the dozens of selfies taken in and around the structure already populating the internet, and you’ll start to feel like the artwork isn’t complete without the silhouette of a human face against its stark facade.

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Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015. [Photo: ©Ellsworth Kelly Foundation/courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin]
Kelly, who died in 2015 at 92, became one of the most famous practitioners of the school of abstract expressionism sometimes called “color field” painting, where blocks of solid color manipulate your optical perception of depth and hue. His paintings are razor-sharp and unambiguous–they speak in direct, intentional shapes and colors. So does Austin, his first piece of architecture, designed more than 30 years ago and finished for $23 million on the University of Austin campus three years after his death.

The secular space is empty except for a selection of Kelly’s own pieces–instead, the building is the art, with three of its limestone facades crowned with an abstracted arrangement of colored glass. It’s an ode to the artist’s immense oeuvre and also his frank, unpretentious ethos (before he died, Kelly authored a tattoo for a longtime friend and Blanton curator Carter Foster).

Even though Austin exists in three dimensions, it’s just as direct as Kelly’s 2D work, which may help explain why photographs of people against the building look so natural–less like intruders than elements of the work. Kelly once said that he was interested in “the space between the viewer and the surface of the painting.” The play of visitors across the building’s soft gray facade, and through its hazy vaults, almost feel like ornaments suspended in that space between the surface and the eye, which fascinated Kelly for so many decades.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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