A Closer Look
How the Blanton Museum’s Carter Foster is sharing the work of Ellsworth Kelly
by Robyn Ross
Photographs by Warren Chang
When Carter Foster was growing up in Atlanta, he had a close friend with artistic parents: an architect father and a mother who directed the education programs at the city’s High Museum of Art. The two boys occasionally tagged along to the museum, where they explored interactive children’s exhibits about shapes and space. One day his friend’s mother showed him a drawing by Alexander Calder. Foster squinted at it, confused. The drawing looked simple. What made it art?
The woman pointed to a section of the page. “See that shape right there?” she asked. “That’s actually a seal with a ball on its nose.”
Foster remembers the instant sense of clarity that followed. “It was like a lightbulb went off, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what you can do when you’re an artist,’” he says. “It was something that shifted in my perception, and I’ve never forgotten it.”
Looking closely and nudging others toward a shift in perception have become life’s work for Foster, the Blanton Museum’s Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Prints and Drawings. This month marks the opening of the Foster-curated exhibition Form Into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, as well as Austin, the only freestanding building Kelly designed, located next to the Blanton.
The affable Foster’s expansive curiosity imbues a conversation about art with a sense of shared discovery as he tinkers with ideas, often interrupting himself mid-sentence to rephrase a thought. Foster came to the Blanton after 11 years at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where he served as Curator of Drawing. The exhibitions he organized there included the first major museum exhibition of drawings by Edward Hopper, an artist whose wide appeal Foster attributes to the air of mystery Hopper’s work evokes.
“His pieces are about mood and atmosphere,” Foster says. “He gives you information, but he doesn’t complete the thought. He leaves things just ambiguous enough that you want to complete what he’s presenting — like, ‘OK, this is a woman standing in a room. What’s she thinking?’ People say his work was about loneliness, but he said, ‘The loneliness thing is overdone.’ I think they’re more about solitude than loneliness.”
In contrast to the Whitney’s sharp focus on modern and contemporary American art, the Blanton’s collection is broader, including American, Latin American and European art and — of particular interest to Foster — an encyclopedic collection of prints and drawings. At Foster’s first museum job, an internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he focused on works on paper, which immediately attracted him with their intimate scale and unmediated nature.
The size of most drawings makes it possible to pick them up, hold them to the light and see the exact texture of the graphite or chalk. When a student examines a drawing closely, she can see where the artist’s hand trembled or pressed more firmly.
“You’re much closer to the artist,” Foster says, “and you can almost feel their presence.” And because artists often use drawing to work out ideas — for paintings, sculptures, buildings —museumgoers can trace the history of an artist’s creative process through his or her drawings.
Foster has been helping solidify the Blanton’s exhibition schedule and developing future exhibitions, including the concept for a possible show about deception that compares sleight-of-hand magic with trompe l’oeil painting. But most of his energy recently has focused on the Kelly exhibition.
Foster met Kelly in the late 1990s, and the two maintained a friendship until Kelly’s death, in 2015. Foster also has the distinction of having the only tattoo Kelly ever designed, at Foster’s request: a series of four colored rectilinear shapes spaced along the inside of his right forearm. It’s Foster’s only tattoo. “I will never get another one, because I can’t top this,” he says.
While not religious himself, Kelly developed a lifelong interest in religious art and architecture that began during World War II, when he was briefly stationed outside Paris with the U.S. Army. After the war, he returned to France and spent nearly seven years studying the art and architecture of Romanesque and Gothic churches. Those experiences informed his later work, including the design of Austin.
Over the course of his career, Kelly developed four formal concepts that are motifs in Austin: color grid, spectrum, black and white, and totem. Although based on religious elements, those motifs appealed to Kelly on an aesthetic rather than a religious level. Kelly was emphatic that Austin not be associated with any particular religion or practice (“It’s a chapel in form, not function,” Foster explains). But, Foster says, Kelly “creates a setting that is very much about slowing down and resting your mind and your body and contemplating where your place is in the universe. I would say that’s a spiritual thing — and I think that’s what art does: helps you figure out your place in the universe.”
I think that’s what art does: helps you figure out your place in the universe.
Since moving to Austin in August 2016, Foster has had a chance to slow down and contemplate in a way that he couldn’t in New York. After living in a studio for years, he’s moved into a house. He finally has the space to unpack his 3,000 books. He has more time to think.
Austin, the building, is suited to that thoughtful pace Foster has discovered in Austin, the city. The mood of the space will change as the intensity of the sun varies with the weather and seasons. “It’s a building that’s going to reveal itself to us slowly, over the course of the year, because we’re going to start to understand how the light plays out,” Foster says. He adds that it’s appropriate that the chapel would be so closely connected to the natural elements, because Kelly was deeply moved by nature; he drew plants and watched birds his whole life.
“He was a very close observer of the world, and so that was his religion, in a way,” Foster says. “All his work comes out of perception, out of looking. He just happened to look more closely than most people.”
Read more from the Community Issue | February 2018