Artist Silke Otto-Knapp, who painted watercolor ‘dance’, dies at 52

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Silke Otto-Knapp died Sunday, October 9, at her home in Pasadena, Calif., at the age of 52 after a two-year battle with ovarian cancer. News of his death was confirmed by Los Angeles gallery Regen Projects.

Otto-Knapp was revered for her large-scale watercolors capturing the various movements and dances of the natural world and those who occupy it. Born in 1970 in Osnabrück, Germany, where she grew up on a dairy farm, her childhood experiences cultivated a deep interest in nature which she frequently referenced in her monochrome works. She graduated with a degree in fine art from Chelsea College of Art and Design in London, followed by a degree in cultural studies from the University of Hildesheim. Over the course of his decades-long artistic career, Otto-Knapp’s work has been exhibited worldwide in museums and galleries in Berlin, Tokyo, Copenhagen, Istanbul, and several cities in the United States. His paintings are held in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Hammer Museum at UCLA, among others.

Installation view of Silke Otto-Knapp, Earth and sea at Regen Projects in 2019 (photo by Evan Bedford, courtesy Regen Projects)

Otto-Knapp was also deeply interested in and inspired by stage performance through dance and theater, as evidenced by her 2017 solo exhibition in Minneapolis. Bühnenbilder (“Scene Images”) in which several works refer to the experimental imagery of Kurt Schwitters as well as to the unconventional dance performance projects of Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris. She continued on this path through her 2019 solo exhibition Earth and sea at Regen Projects in Los Angeles. Otto-Knapp’s paintings ran the length of the gallery walls, depicting figurative figures interacting with various geometric shapes or dancing with each other.

The artist’s use of watercolor was unique in scale and surface. She chose to use the medium on canvas, noting in an interview with curator Sarah Cosulich that her experiments with paper were too “illustrative”. She observed that the watercolor could “dance” across the canvas in repetitive motions of layering and washing – a process somewhat similar to that of waves breaking on a shore. His painting process rejected the obviousness of an artist’s hand in favor of presenting an all-encompassing, ghostly softness that relieved the eye through a high-contrast field.

Silke Otto-Knapp, “Seascape and cloud” 2021 (© Silke Otto-Knapp, courtesy Regen Projects)

Otto-Knapp rose to prominence early on, when she used watercolor on photographs, almost completely obscuring the image below with blurry overlays. While maintaining the use of photographic references throughout her practice, she abandoned notions of photorealism and representationalism to create her own timeless, abstract environments where perspective is left out and movement is privileged.

Outside of his studio practice, Otto-Knapp was a highly regarded painting and drawing teacher at UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture. “Silke’s incredible dedication to the art department over the past decade makes it a profound and deeply felt loss to our community,” said the artist. Catherine Opie, Lynda and Stewart Resnick art teacher at the university. “Her warmth, commitment and the beauty with which she pursued her work and teaching was monumental. His many students will be forever changed by his honest generosity in support of their ideas and work as artists.

Otto-Knapp’s two-panel painting, “Monotone (Moonlit Scene after Samuel Palmer)” (2016), is now on display as part of the exhibition Joan Didion: what she means at the Hammer Museum. Solo exhibitions are scheduled to open this month at Galerie Buchholz in New York and next month at Casa Mutina Milano in Milan, Italy.

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