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Ellsworth Kelly may have been an atheist, but his chapel is undeniably spiritual

Much as he remained an atheist, the artist, who died in 2015 at the age of 92, could not escape the lure of religious iconography.

Patches of light flood the interior of Ellsworth Kelly's Austin at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. Photo by Kate Russell courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

AUSTIN, Texas (RNS) — The monumental new landmark “Austin,” may not be the kind of pilgrimage site Christians might think of visiting during Lent.

Designed by Ellsworth Kelly, the American abstract painter best known for his fascination with line, form and color, the free-standing structure is described as a strictly secular project, conceived by a nonbeliever “without a religious program.”

But then, how to explain the shape of the 2,715-square-foot building that forms a kind of vaulted cross, meant to resemble Romanesque and Cistercian cathedrals?

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What of the circular stained-glass “tumbling squares” arranged in the formation of a traditional rose window, such as the one at Chartres Cathedral?

Or the wall of 12 colored glass rectangles that form a kind of monstrance used in Catholic services to display the Eucharistic host?

Or finally, the 14 black-and-white marble panels titled “Stations of the Cross”?

Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin” at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, features an installation of colored glass windows. Photo by Kate Russell courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

Much as he remained an atheist, Kelly, who died in 2015 at the age of 92, could not escape the lure of religious iconography.

“By the time you’re working so hard to create this deeply contemplative rich space that references and draws together so many of the great moments of Christian religious art, you’re not doing something that can be completely categorized as secular anymore,” said Aaron Rosen, a professor of religious studies and author of “Art and Religion in the 21st Century.”

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“Austin,” which opened to the public on Feb. 18, during the season of Lent, has so far drawn 12,000 visitors to the grounds of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. Many of them are, no doubt, nonbelievers too. But even they have taken note of the work’s spiritual leanings.

Monstrance, 1949, oil on plywood.
 Photo by Ron Amstutz, courtesy of Ellsworth Kelly Studio

Kelly, who designed the minutest details of the building but died two months before construction began, is considered one of the most influential artists of the post-World War II era. After his discharge from the Army in 1945, he spent six years in Paris where he sketched 11th- and 12th-century cathedrals, abbeys and churches across France and Catalonia.

After returning to the U.S., he moved to New York and later decamped to a studio about 130 miles north of the city where he created abstract paintings, sculptures, collages, drawings and prints, paring shapes and colors down to their purest forms.

Museums and prestigious private collections snapped up his work, which has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Tate in London. In 2007, his 13-part series “Spectrum VI” fetched a record $5.2 million.

“Austin,” which was completed after the Blanton launched a $23 million campaign, is Kelly’s most ambitious work, the capstone of a celebrated career.

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Like the Rothko Chapel in Houston, which features 14 paintings by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, corresponding to the Stations of the Cross, Kelly decided his chapel would also have 14 works.

In Kelly’s case, the 14 marble black-and-white panels may have been conceived with another American abstractionist in mind —Barnett Newman, who drew a black-and-white Stations of the Cross dominated by a vertical line or gash.

Like Newman’s series, Kelly’s does not represent the actual Stations of the Cross, which commemorates events from Jesus’ walk to Calvary, crucifixion, death and entombment.

But some might say God is in the details. The light streaming through the glass panes casts streaks of color on the marble panels consisting of geometric shapes, allowing the mind to imagine a moving tableau.

“It’s very different every time you come,” said Shripal Shah, a UT senior, who took time out to visit the monument recently. “It’s a different experience.”

The west facade of Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin” at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. The artist-designed building has an installation of colored glass windows, black and white marble panels, and redwood totem. Photo by Kate Russell courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

In the apse, where a church might position the altar, Kelly chose to plant an 18-foot-long totem made of reclaimed redwood salvaged from the bottom of a riverbed.

Kelly reportedly turned down an offer to construct the monument at a Catholic university because it asked that the building be consecrated. In this, he was part of a wave of post-World War II artists who wanted no direct connection to religion, said Rosen.

“He grew up in a time when it was important for artists not to say they were doing something explicitly religious because that would constrain the meaning of their work and place them in a box they didn’t want to be in,” Rosen said.

But it is hard to deny its spirituality in the way it forces the viewer to pay attention to light, color, form, shape and beauty. Kelly acknowledged as much in a 2015 interview with The New York Times: “I think people need some kind of spiritual thing,” he said.

Journalist and writer Susan Faludi who toured “Austin” a few weeks ago, said she appreciated Kelly’s efforts to elevate those common elements of reality.

“I’m not religious,” said Faludi. “But this puts me in contact with bedrock spirituality I do have, even if I don’t belong to a church or a denomination.”