Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin-Form Without Spirit

Walking toward the south end of campus, you’ll see a new building at the University of Texas. It’s a large bulbous looking structure near the Blanton Museum of Art, as you pass between the PCL building and Jester dorm.  It looks like a giant igloo from the back–plain stone, bereft of architectural interest.


As you walk around, three of the four sides of the cruciform structure have colored glass in simple, geometric patterns.

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The building is called “Austin”, and the plans were gifted to the Blanton Museum by American artist, Ellsworth Kelly, shortly before he passed away in 2015.

Here’s what the publicity says:

“Kelly envisioned his creation as a site for joy and contemplation in the tradition of modernist artist-commissioned buildings, such as the Rothko Chapel in Houston and Henri Mattisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire in Southern France. It is an extraordinary acquisition for the Blanton and Austin community.”

Of course, one wonders how it can be in the tradition of the Rothko chapel and the Mattise chapel when the Blanton museum has gone out of its way to make sure everyone knows it’s not a chapel.

The building will be open to the public for the first time this coming Sunday, February 18, with an accompanying exhibition, Form into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin.

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The title of the exhibition should raise the brows of anyone who’s paying attention.

Kelly was an atheistic naturalist. This philosophy denies the existence of anything spiritual. If you believe, as Kelly did, that matter is all there is and we are nothing more than the product of mindless, unguided natural processes, there is no spiritual realm.  There can never be any spiritual dimension for the atheist, unless they borrow from a religious framework, which is exactly what is happening here.


Kelly’s structure is form without spirit. That would be a better title, consistent with the the artist’s life and the corpus of his work.

Atheists, like Ellsworth Kelly, borrow from religion because they cannot consistently live out atheism and its ramifications, or speak about it without refuting their own views. Their art must draw from other resources to find meaning.

I explain Kelly’s worldview in this short video and then relate it to the “Austin” structure in this short video.

Ellsworth Kelly’s homosexual partner, Jack Shear (still living), has called it a “secular chapel”.  But that’s an oxymoron. Before we jettison all logic, we should recall that “chapel” is a word referring to a place for Christian worship. At the very least, it denotes a place for religious observance. Don’t take my word for it, just google it.

An argument could be made that the language surrounding Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin does violence to language itself. It denigrates what little Christian heritage remains in our culture by redefining and confusing the very words we use to talk about it.

Some questions to think about:

Why do atheists use religious language?

Why is the Christian faith often seen as an enemy of the artistic elite?







“An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” by Joseph Wright, 1768

An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768 - Copy


This painting captures the drama of the Enlightenment. During the late 17thth century, discoveries in the realm of natural sciences gave mankind unprecedented power, as well as unavoidable moral dilemmas. In this painting, Wright forged new territory, focusing on the prominent issue of his day. It’s not inconceivable that the artist himself witnessed this experiment first hand. In this magnificent work, Wright delivers subtle criticism of the philosophical and moral ramifications of European society’s love affair with science during the Age of Reason. In order to prove the existence of oxygen, the traveling scientist places the pet cockatoo under the glass bell. He attaches the tubing to the top of the glass. There is no visible change at first. Everyone in the room is silent. They listen to the sucking sound of the vacuum pump…whoosh…whoosh…whoosh…The elegant white bird begins to jerk and spasm…and then become still.

It is no accident that this scene is cast mostly in shadow. With only a single hidden candle providing light to the room, Wright suggests the absence of moral guidance. We are able to survey the varying reactions of those standing around the table, but the scientist looks to the viewer to decide the bird’s fate. Incredibly, Wright puts you, and every other person who views this work in room 34 of the National Gallery in London, on the spot. What will it be? Life or death?


“What sort of an experiment is this? No time to deliberate, no time to discuss the matter? How can you say to me, “Choose quickly!”? It is you who is being paid to provide entertainment this evening, not force this unpleasantness upon us. You have proven the existence of an invisible gas in the air, to be sure, and there can be no doubting its necessity. But time is running out for this poor creature, anyone can see that. Release this bird, sir, you are distressing the children! You said nothing about harming the animal. Come now, you’ve taken this far enough! The triumph of science makes itself known in many ways, surely, and we value science as much as any family does, but we will not entertain cruelty for amusement. Release the bird!”[1]


Is the moral dilemma Wright creates in this painting so different from the dilemmas we face today? We want the thrill and advantage of scientific discovery, but at what cost? At what point does experimentation become cruel?

“Science gives us knowledge, a gift that is surely always welcome as providing a better basis for decisions than ignorance. But then science’s lusty offspring, technology, uses that knowledge to give us power, the ability to do things not previously thought to be possible. This is a more ambiguous gift, since not everything that can be done, should be done.”[2]



[1] Scarlett Clay (2017). Fictional dialogue.

[2] John Polkinghorne, Exploring Reality, Yale University Press, 2005, p. 147.