Silke Otto-Knapp, known for her emotionally resonant watercolor-blurred canvases depicting fleeting human forms and vague landscapes, died at her home in Pasadena, California, on October 9 at the age of fifty-two of ovarian cancer. News of her death was confirmed by Regen Projects, her Los Angeles gallery. Eschewing watercolor’s traditional ground of paper as too “illustrational,” Otto-Knapp instead embraced a process of addition and removal, drenching her canvases in the aqueous pigment and then washing away or adding paint to create lush, theatrical works that occupy a realm between figuration and abstraction. The gossamer appearance of the watercolor canvases, often rendered in black-and-white and frequently themed around night skies, seascapes, and, most memorably, dance, invite viewers to spend time looking, effectuating a trancelike state. “The beauty of Otto-Knapp’s paintings is in their light touch,” Paige K. Bradley wrote in Artforum in 2014. “They sing lullabies, not show tunes. The artist’s layers of watered pigment combined with vibrant, simple shapes give the pictures a ghostly and gentle sensibility that is sure to linger.”
Silke Otto-Knapp was born in 1970 in Osnabrück, Germany, and grew up on a dairy farm, which instilled in her a love of nature. She majored in cultural studies at the University of Hildesheim before earning her MFA from Chelsea College of Art and Design (now the Chelsea College of Arts) in London. Having by this time already discovered her preferred technique of applying watercolor to canvas and removing it with water or a dry sponge, Ott-Knapp began making works taking photographs as their reference and depicting barely seen people and places. These paintings recalled J. M. W. Turner in their hues and romanticism, and, as Jennifer Higgie noted in a 2003 issue of Frieze, “the remnants of old, hand-tinted photographs left in the rain,” in their smudged and liquid appearance, which had the effect of accenting, minimizing, or otherwise rendering strange otherwise ordinary objects (“a brick in Otto-Knapp’s world is more fragile than a leaf,” Higgie remarked).
As Otto-Knapp turned her attention more fully to landscapes, she began to work more frequently in black-and-white—“all the other colors somehow left my studio,” she told curator Sarah Koselich in 2020. Despite this stark palette, her works continued to radiate a warmth typically not associated with a flat lack of hue. In her landscapes, many of Canada’s Fogo Island, and portraits of dancers—which became her main focus around the end of the aughts and spanned the Ballets Russes of 1923 through the late-’60s performances of Yvonne Rainer—her subjects glow luminously, taking on an eerie, almost ghostly appearance. Mindful of where and how her work was exhibited, Otto-Knapp in the past decade moved her work off the wall and onto folding screens. Writing in Artforum on a 2020 exhibition of Otto-Knapp’s work at Chicago’s Renaissance Society, Mara Hoberman described the presentation of the works as having the appearance of stage set. “A pivotal reference for the exhibition is [Natalia] Goncharova’s Spring, 1927–28, a decorative screen covered in botanical motifs that was originally commissioned for the Arts Club of Chicago,” Hoberman wrote. “Otto-Knapp reimagines her muse’s artwork as a freestanding wall, a key element in this black-and-white theater in which viewers are cast as performers.”
Otto-Knapp taught for several years at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna; since 2015, she served as associate professor of painting and drawing at the University of California, Los Angeles. Solo exhibitions of here work appeared at major institutions around the world, including the Art Gallery of Toronto; Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna; Camden Arts Centre and Tate Britain, both in London; Konsthall Charlottenborg, Copenhagen; and Kunstverein Munich. Otto-Knapp participated in the 2018 iteration of the Liverpool Biennial, the 2016 edition of Made in L.A., and the 2005 Istanbul Biennial, among other recurring events. Her work is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; and Tate Modern, among others. Her 2016 Monotone (Moonlit Scene after Samuel Palmer) will go on view beginning October 11 as part of the exhibition “Joan Didion: What She Means” at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles; a solo exhibition of her work opens October 28 at New York’s Galerie Buchholz.