The Austin Wall as seen from the main lobby of the Austin Federal Courthouse.
NEW YORK - Clifford Ross knows a little something about great expectations. When he started out as an abstract painter, in the 1970s, he was going into a family business of sorts – his aunt was the late, great Helen Frankenthaler, a painter I admire and was lucky enough to interview. His father, Arthur Ross, was a famous investment manager and pioneer in philanthropy whose beloved cause was Central Park. (You may have been to a lovely grove called the Arthur Ross Pinetum).
Ross took a hard left turn in the 1980s, toward photography, and found his métier. His work blossomed, and moved in directions he never predicted. Ross has become known for his use of technology – so much so that he has a patent on a super high-resolution camera.
I visited with Ross twice this summer, at his home and studio in Greenwich Village, as well as his Hamptons hideaway studio where he’s buckling down on new work. The occasion was to discuss his fearsomely ambitious public project, The Austin Wall, which just debuted this spring in the brand-new U.S. Courthouse in Austin, Texas.
Clifford Ross inspects final door for The Austin Wall at Steindl Glas, Itter, Austria.
He spent six years on the project, which all started with an email from the art-commissioning chief of the General Services Administration and led to him being interviewed by a panel of federal judges. “I talked about Veronese frescoes,” said Ross, who is articulate and easily excitable. “The way his infused buildings with art, rather than hanging art on the walls. That seemed to resonate.”
Out of respect for the beautiful design, Ross decided not to hang anything in the new courtrooms by the building’s architects, Mack Scogin Merrill Elam. Instead, he created a massive and innovative stained glass wall weighing some 6,000 pounds for the lobby. As he seems to with every project, he pushed the medium further without even meaning to at the start. “What’s unique about the wall is that we put together digital technology and the 1000-year-old medium of stained glass, plus two layers of hand-painting,” Ross told me.
The front and back layer of The Austin Wall.
The dazzling top section is based on a high-resolution photograph of Colorado’s Mt. Sopris, an image that is something of an obsession for Ross – it’s his Mont Saint Victoire, you could say, and he has been riffing on it for a decade with no signs of stopping.
Digital animation helped him break apart the images into colored shards, and his background in abstraction comes through in the energetic but nicely balanced composition. The lower, black-and-white section of the stained glass is based on a photograph of Texas Hill Country, for some local flavor. It actually opens and closes in the middle (requiring still more engineering advances), connecting two spaces into one if desired.
“I had never worked in stained glass,” Ross told me. “I should have been petrified.” Like a lot of good artists, he embraces process, holding on for dear life as he takes a leap. His time as a painter, and maybe even some deeply seeded family traits, are part of his unusual success rate. As he put it to me, “Working on an image endlessly is in my DNA.”