Anticipating an Ellsworth Kelly masterpiece with a print exhibit — and a tattoo

Carter Foster has a most singular keepsake of a friendship with one of America’s great 20th-century abstract artists


Carter E. Foster is the first art historian to have written on Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin,” the artist’s first and only freestanding building.

However when Foster penned his essay “Stations of the Cross: Black, White, Light” in 2010 Kelly’s chapel-like building was a conception, an unnamed project designed in 1986 at the behest of a collector yet never realized.

Now, Kelly’s pale stone structure with luminous colored glass windows is a reality. “Austin” is set to open Feb. 18, a permanent part the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas.

And while the unveiling of “Austin” — the artist’s final work —  will invariably spawn more Kelly scholarship, Foster, the Blanton’s Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Prints and Drawings, can still make a singular claim. He is the only person in the world with a tattoo designed by Ellsworth Kelly.

Four squares — blue, black, orange, green — tumble down the inside of Foster’s right forearm, an unmistakable Kelly composition of form and color.

“Ellsworth gave it an inventory number,” Foster says. “He considered it part of his catalog.”

I met with Foster recently in “Line Form Color,” a small, jewel-like exhibit he and Blanton curatorial assistant Christian Wurst organized.

Foster and Wurst used Kelly’s “Line Form Color” artist book as a lens to make a sharply focused selection of like-minded work from the Blanton’s vast collection of prints.

In 1951, Kelly submitted a proposal for a book called “Line Form Color” to the Guggenheim Foundation. The book was a manifesto of sorts, an outline of Kelly’s ideas of “an alphabet of plastic pictorial elements… an alphabet of lines, forms, values and colors.” The Guggenheim passed on publishing the book. (It was eventually published in 1999.)

In a few dozen stunning works by artists from Latin America, Europe and the U.S., Foster and Wurst capture how an essential and elemental aesthetic language cross-pollinated among artists in the decades after WWII.

“The joy of working at any museum is letting its collection teach you,” Foster tells me, adding that the current exhibit offered just the latest pathway for him to explore the Blanton’s collection of more 16,000 prints and drawings. “I like finding threads that connect art through different eras and contexts.”

Foster joined the Blanton in mid-2016 taking the position of deputy director and curator of prints and drawings. For 12 years prior Foster was at the Whitney Museum of American Art as the institution’s first curator of drawings. Among other shows he organized was the sweeping and hugely popular exhibit of Edward Hopper’s drawings many of which had never been exhibit before.

Yet if Foster’s professional work has largely focused on drawings — “drawings connect to every other art medium,”  he says — he resists art historical over-specialization. “If you’re an art historian living now, how can you not pay attention to art being made now? And conversely, if you’re a contemporary art specialist how can you not be deeply interested in art of the past?”

To accompany the opening of “Austin” Foster has organized “Form Into Spirit” an extensive exhibit that charts the decades-long course of influences upon and development of Kelly’s final masterpiece.

But about that tattoo? Foster is good-humored enough to honor requests to see it, graciously rolling up his sleeve as he did for me.

Kelly designed it for Foster in 2010, years into the friendship the two shared and had developed during Foster’s years at the Whitney.  The curator made weekend trips on occasion to the tiny upstate New York town of Spencertown to visit Kelly and his husband, Jack Shear.

“Ellsworth was a wonderful person, a generous person,” Foster says. “He was curious and loved to talk about a wide range of things which we did.”

And yes, the friends talked about a tattoo, too.

Explains Foster: “I had been thinking about getting a tattoo for a while and decided that I would if I a great artist designed it. And so I asked Ellsworth if he would design me a tattoo, not really thinking he would say yes. But he did.”

Foster photocopied his right forearm and sent to Kelly. Six months or so went by and Foster again brought up the subject during a Spencertown visit.

“Ellsworth said ‘let’s just do it now’ and we spent about 45 minutes in his studio while he cut up squares of paper and began arranging them directly on my arm,” says Foster.

Ellsworth Kelly creating the design for the tattoo on Carter Foster’s arm. Photo courtesy the artist and Carter Foster

When he was finished Kelly made a collage of the squares on the photocopy of Foster arm’s. Foster took that collage to noted tattoo artist Scott Campbell who matched the colors and made the tattoo according to Kelly’s composition.

“Ellsworth loved it when he saw it, he considered it one of his works of art. And I love it. It’s a wonderful way to remember a wonderful friend.”

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is an arts and culture journalist who has covered visual art, performance, film, literature, architecture, and just about any combination thereof. She was the staff arts critic for the Austin American-Statesman for 17 years. Her commendations include the First Place Arts & Culture Criticism Award from the Society for Features Journalism. Additionally, Jeanne Claire has been awarded professional fellowships at USC’s Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and NEA/Columbia University Arts Journalism Institute. In 2022, she was awarded the Rabkin Prize in visual art journalism. Jeanne Claire founded and led Sightlines, a non-profit online arts and culture magazine that reached an annual readership of 600,000. And for two years, she taught arts journalism at the University of Texas College of Fine Arts. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Architecture magazine, Dwell, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Art Papers, and ICON design magazine, among other publications.

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