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.

form 3

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?








  1. Fascinating, Scarlett. You’ve raised some interesting points here. As for the building, it is most peculiar to look at and doesn’t have much architectural merit to me! If this “chapel” is not for Christian worship, what is it for?


    • Hi Shoshi,
      The University of Texas calls it a “space for joy and contemplation”. I agree with you, it’s not much to look at!

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