Following ‘Austin,’ Blanton Museum Receives Ellsworth Kelly Art Collection

A year ago, a monument was constructed at the edge of campus. Difficult to miss, this structure protruded from the ground with silky white limestone walls, gleaming colored windows and a calculated curvature, signature to the artist who conceived it. Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin changed the landscape of the Blanton museum, literally and figuratively. Just a year later, 76 accompanying pieces arrived, advancing the appreciation and display of Kelly’s genius in the city the now iconic piece is named after.  

The Blanton acquired the gifts, compiled throughout the year since Austin opened in 2018. The pieces vary from drawings to sculptures. Most relate directly to the genesis of Austin, originally intended to be a pavilion for collector and patron Douglas S. Cramer’s vineyard property in the mid-1980s. Sixty-seven specifically come from the late artist and Kelly’s husband, Jack Shear, president of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Among those are the graphite drawings that were blueprints for what would become the 33 stained glass windows, 14 interior panels, and 18-foot-tall totem inside AustinThough Kelly died in 2015, the sketches, bring back the spirit of the great talent. 

While these pieces cannot be permanently displayed, since light exposure could ruin their preservation, the Blanton’s Julia Matthews Wilkinson Center for Prints and Drawings allows visitors, scholars, and anyone curious to know more about the original sketches to view them. While some pieces from Kelly and Shear outline the physical propertiesothers offer the meaning and motivation behind Austin. Kelly lived in France from 1948 to 1954, gleaning inspiration from religious art. Although he was an atheist, he explored Christian themes with visits to churches and cathedrals and created his own religious-styled pieces. These structures, along with French Romanesque and Medieval art, would influence the chapel outside the Blanton, says Carter E. Foster, deputy director for curatorial affairs and curator of prints and longtime friend of Kelly.

Ellsworth Kelly is best known for his abstract painting and sculpture and his inventive use of form and color,” Foster says. “His art is, however, not purely abstract; rather, it is an art of distillation, in that he was always inspired by his observations of nature and the world around him, and he distilled those acts of observation into pure forms and colors that interact together and with the space and architecture in which they are presented.” 

Austin itself is a sum of his seven-decade career. With ceilings rounded to mathematical perfection and an ever-changing experience with light brought in by the colored windows, it’s become an iconic structure in the city. Although originally intended to be Cramer’s pavilion, through a variety of beneficiaries, friends, and Kelly himself, the structure came to The University of Texas campus. Since its opening, the light gray Spanish-imported limestone has surrounded over 171,000 visitors. In fact, this is the second fiscal year the Blanton surpassed 200,000 attendeeswhich they widely attribute to Austin 

In addition to the pieces from the artist and his spouse are four print plant drawings. Cramer’s vineyard, where Austin was originally intended to sit, inspired the illustrations. The famed television producer’s gift illuminates Kelly’s observation of the natural world, Foster says. Other gifts include three sculptures and two paintings. Two relief sculptures come from longtime art collectors Jan and Howard Hendler. The other sculpture and an oil sketch come from Blanton National Leadership Board members Jeanne Klein, BS ’67, Life Member, and Michael Klein, BS ’58, JD ’63, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus. The other painting comes from businessman David G. Booth. Since claiming Austin, the Blanton has become a hub for Kelly’s work, a fact reinforced by the 76 pieces.  

“Since Austin’s opening in February 2018, the Blanton has been the epicenter of the Ellsworth Kelly universe,” Shear says. “It’s been personally pleasing to see the Blanton’s focus on Kelly’s work and scholarship, and as a steward of his legacy, I’m happy to do what I can to sustain it.”  

The museum gratefully accepted its role with a lunchtime series, Kelly &, a set of informal talks bringing in a variety of longtime friends and Kelly experts to the area. In June, Tricia Paikdirector of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museumgave a talk entitled Kelly & Postcards. Kelly began creating postcards in the 1950s, after he returned from Paris. The art historian and student of Kelly spoke on his relationship with both reality and abstraction.  

“We’ll say that Ellsworth left behind a real treasure trove of art and material that will continue to keep us all invested in his work,” Paik says. “I love that here in Austin that is really coming to bear, and that there will be new audiences learning about his work, and new scholars coming to the floor to investigate his work.” 

Other events from the series include Kelly & Stamps, coming in November. The Blanton also created an in-depth web essay and video series to explain the conception and creation of Austin and the museum and Radius Books will publish a book dedicated to Austin this fall. Additionally, with the gift of $20 million from The Moody Foundation of Galveston, the outdoor gallery will be remodeled. The space outside Austin will highlight and enhance the experience with the chapel and allow the museum to better accommodate entertainment and events.  

 At a wider outset, entrusting the Blanton with these pieces, furthers the city’s stake as a center of both Kelly and art. “Having Austin in Austin and at the Blanton certainly has helped put the city and the museum on the worldwide cultural map. I know from all the out of town visitors I myself have hosted that many people come to Austin just to see building. It certainly adds to the city’s prominence as a significant arts destination and economic driver, alongside Austin’s famous music scene,” Foster says 

The Blanton has displayed Kelly’s pieces on the museum grounds and in exhibition, and already houses other major worksso for now, the 76 pieces have their own hopeful but undeclared plans. “We know that we always want to have work by Kelly on view,” he says. 

While it’s unclear the various places future generations will enjoy the abstract artist’s legacy, the efforts the Blanton makes with talks, exhibits and education, make Paik feel the Blanton is a good place to start. “Here’s to you Ellsworth,” Paik says. “May your past proposals come to life as it was done here [at the Blanton] so brilliantly and successfully.” 

Photos from top:

Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015 ©Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, Photo courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

Ellsworth Kelly, Study for Chapel’s West Wall, 1987, graphite on paper, 9 1/8 x 20 3/8 in., Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of the artist and Jack Shear, 2018, ©Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, photo courtesy Ellsworth Kelly Studio

Ellsworth Kelly, Study for Stations of the Cross, 1987, graphite and ink on paper, 12 1/2 x 19 in., Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of the artist and Jack Shear, 2018, ©Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, Photo courtesy Ellsworth Kelly Studio

Ellsworth Kelly, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1982, graphite on paper, 22 x 15 in., Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of Douglas S. Cramer, 2017, ©Ellsworth Kelly Foundation



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