As I trek across the expansive 40 acres at the University of Texas at Austin toward the Blanton Museum of Art, which is perched on the southern edge of campus, I am struck by the ever-evolving landscape of the museum grounds. What was once a lone limestone building is now crowned by Ellsworth Kelly’s impressive architectural homage to color and light, titled Austin, which will soon be accompanied by a sculpture garden inviting visitors to lounge on a grassy knoll beneath shade cast by monumental umbrella blossoms. As I enter the museum, escaping the noisy bustle of construction, I am enveloped in a sea of calm. I find myself propelled across the administrative lobby, through a classically-inspired colonnade and into a luminescent sanctum. A few visitors and some meandering students weave in and out of the sandy-colored arcade, which mimics the architecture of an ancient Roman bath complex.
As I emerge through the rows of arches, I arrive in an open-air atrium, and am surrounded by bright light and a sea of cool blue tones known as Stacked Waters. This artwork is my absolute favorite part of the Blanton Museum because of its effortless beauty. Stacked Waters consists of horizontal rows of custom-cast acrylic tiles in a variety of blues that encase the walls of the vast Rapoport Atrium. The colors present a gentle gradation of dark to light hues creeping up the walls toward an open, staggered skylight. The atrium ceiling is punctuated with asymmetrical window walls that invite the optimal amount of light into the space. The innovative design creates a clear, dazzling space even on gloomy gray days.
Stacked Waters is a large-scale permanent installation that was commissioned by the Blanton Museum of Art in 2009. The artwork was created by Teresita Fernández, who is known for her immersive pieces that manipulate light, space, and mood. Fernández is an esteemed artist, whose storied career spans more than three decades. Her work is characterized by bold concepts and incorporates a wide variety of media, from metals such as steel, aluminum, and gold, to textiles like silk, burlap, or rope, and even natural materials including wood, graphite, and volcanic rock. Fernández focuses her efforts on large-scale works and permanent installations. Much of her art draws on inspiration from the natural world, and the artist is well-known for manipulating hard, unyielding materials into soft, flowing, organic forms. Thematically, Fernández’s pieces address the intersection of landscape, colonialism, climate, space, and violence.
Fernández was born in Miami to immigrant parents. She received her B.F.A in 1990 from Florida International University and an M.F.A in 1992 from Virginia Commonwealth University. She is the recipient of numerous awards, fellowships, and grants and has held solo exhibitions at galleries and museums across the world. In 2011, President Obama appointed Fernández to serve on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which advises on matters of national aesthetics and preservation. This was a groundbreaking appointment, as Fernández is the first Latina to serve on the prestigious commission. In addition to her myriad accolades, Fernández has emerged as an advocate for Latinx artists. In 2016, Fernández organized the U.S Latinx Arts Futures Symposium, which aimed to address the invisibility and lack of diversity of artists and curators throughout the art world. As one of the most prominent Latinx artists, Fernández endeavors to pave the way for increased diversity and inclusivity in gallery and museum spaces.
As with most of Fernández’s works, Stacked Waters urges reflection, and viewers are meant to situate themselves within its landscape. Stacked Waters welcomes each Blanton visitor into its dark depths, inviting them to take a seat on a bench and ponder its varied shades of blue, or to venture into one of the lower exhibition spaces to discover what pieces are hidden behind the azure walls. As I am encased in the 360-degree view of blue hues, I feel drawn into the artwork itself. Stacked Waters references the splendor and mystery of the natural world, and its monumental scale highlights the sublime aspects of nature. The piece invokes the feelings of awe I often experience when I stand on a sandy beach, watching the ebb and flow of an ocean’s foamy waves while taking in the endless horizon. Its colors recall the aquamarine waters of the Mediterranean Sea. As I survey the luminous atrium, I bask in the artwork’s cool calmness and I am transported back to my days working on excavations in Greece and Italy, where my office consisted of a backdrop of the cerulean sky meshing with the deep, crystal blue sea.
After exploring the first floor, visitors are urged to climb the colossal grand staircase to investigate the upstairs galleries. As they ascend, they journey from the depths of dark blue waters into shallows, represented by shades of light blue, and finally emerge into a cool white sky. The viewer is then faced with a new work of art that sprouts precariously from the center of the atrium ceiling and augments the emotional effects of Stacked Waters. Thomas Glassford’s sculpture Siphonophora was acquired in 2016 and is directly inspired by free-floating sea creatures who dwell in the depths of the ocean and on sea floors. Siphonophora delightfully enhances the aquatic theme of the museum’s atrium and is right at home among the ombre blues of Stacked Waters. The work looms over the atrium sprouting branch-like appendages, stacks of thick ivy leaves, floral bulbs, and fully blossomed flowers that are more than forty feet in length. Despite being partially made of concrete, the massive structure appears lighter than air as it floats above the blue waves of Stacked Waters — just as Fernández’s rigid acrylic tiles yield the effect of undulant ocean waves.
Siphonophora’s stark whiteness and spindly, organic tentacles provide a striking and pleasant juxtaposition to the varied hues of Stacked Waters, which offers a welcoming entrance and provides the perfect introduction to the vast treasures displayed within the Blanton Museum of Art. Upon entering the museum, the visitor is faced with a transcendent experience by being immersed in the artwork, and is encouraged to act as both a viewer of the art as well as a performer within it. Stacked Waters is representative of Fernández’s larger body of work as she challenges and deconstructs conventional thoughts of landscape art. Not only is Stacked Waters composed of multiple layers of blue hues, but it also offers a complex and layered experience by compelling the viewer to imagine the beauty of nature while reflecting on its sublime, awe-inspiring aspects.
Lauren Bock is a PhD student in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Austin and was a finalist for the 2022 Glasstire Central Texas Art Writing Prize.