Seventy-six works of art by the late Ellsworth Kelly — 67 of which belonged to the Kelly and his husband Jack Shear, president of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation — have been donated to the Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas art museum announced today.
In February 2018, the Blanton opened Kelly’s “Austin,” 2,715-square-foot stone building, the artist’s final work and only building. Kelly, who died in 2015 at age 92, gifted the design concept to the Blanton. With its luminous colored glass windows, totemic wood sculpture, and 14 starkly abstract black and white marble panels, “Austin” echos Kelly’s work which stripped painting and sculpture down to their elemental components of form, line and color. Honoring Kelly’s tradition of naming particular works for the places for which they are destined, “Austin” to date attracted more than 170,000 visitors since it opened.
Important among the items donated by Shear and the Kelly Foundation is an architectural model of the project’s original design from 1986, along with other drawings in which the artist worked out the concept and design in great detail during the mid-1980s. Other donated drawings date from the time Kelly spent in France between 1948 and 1954, a transformative period for the artist during which he used the country’s art historical past — including its Romanesque and Byzantine architecture — to hone his process of distilling line, color and form to their essence.
“Since Austin’s opening in February 2018, the Blanton has been the epicenter of the Ellsworth Kelly universe,” said Shear, in a statement. “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.”
Television producer Douglas S. Cramer donated four Kelly drawings of varietals in Cramer’s former California vineyard, the original proposed site of Kelly’s design for the structure that would become “Austin.” The producer behind “Dynasty” and “The Love Boat,” Cramer envisioned a chapel for his vineyard and in 1987 commissioned Kelly to design one. Kelly’s design process even got the phase that blueprints were drafted. But the cost was prohibitive and Cramer sold his vineyard.
Over the years, other collectors and a few institutions expressed interest in the project. But nothing stuck until 2012, when Houston gallerist and UT alumnus Hiriam Butler lit on bringing the project to Texas. After negotiations with Rice University stalled, Butler brought the idea to internationally regarded collectors and longtime Blanton supporters Jeanne and Michael Klein who then brought the idea to Blanton director Simone Wicha.
As part of the recent donation, the Kleins have made promised gifts of a bronze sculpture, “Untitled” (1997–98), and an oil sketch on paper, “Red, Green, Blue” (1964).
Phoenix collectors Jan and Howard Hendler gifted the Blanton two relief sculptures: “Grey Panel” (1982) and “Dark-Red Violet Panel” (1982). They are from the limited-edition series of aluminum panels produced by Gemini GEL of Los Angeles, “Painted Wall Sculptures” (1981–82), significant examples of Kelly’s relief sculpture.
Similarly, “Red Relief with White” (2007), a promised gift of Austin collector and businessman David G. Booth, is an example of Kelly’s late painting style featuring multiple joined panels, a format the artist explored in the last years of his life.
The Blanton has also just launched an in-depth multi-media essay and eight-part video series about Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin.” Authored by Blanton deputy director for curatorial affairs Carter E. Foster — who bears the only tattoo ever designed by Kelly —the essay traces the origins, development, and construction of “Austin” while the videos offer behind-the-scenes looks at the construction of the building and its artistic elements.
And coming this summer, the Blanton and Radius Books will publish a book dedicated to Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin.”