Silke Otto-Knapp (photo by Sharon Lockhart, courtesy Regen Projects)

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

Otto-Knapp was revered for her large-scale watercolor paintings capturing the different 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 that she frequently referenced in her monochromatic works. She received a degree in Fine Arts from the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London, followed by a degree in Cultural Studies from the University of Hildesheim. During her decades-long artistic career, Otto-Knapp’s work has been displayed internationally in museums and galleries in Berlin, Tokyo, Copenhagen, Istanbul, and multiple cities across the United States. Her 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, Land 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 performances across dance and theater, as demonstrated in her 2017 Minneapolis solo exhibition Bühnenbilder (“Stage Images”) in which multiple works reference the experimental imagery of Kurt Schwitters as well as the unconventional dance performance projects of Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris. She continued on this track through her 2019 solo exhibition Land and Sea at Regen Projects in Los Angeles. Otto-Knapp’s tableau works spanned the length of the gallery’s walls, portraying figurative silhouettes interacting with various geometric shapes or dancing with one another.

The artist’s use of watercolor was unique in both scale and surface. She opted to employ the medium on canvas, noting in an interview with curator Sarah Cosulich that her experiments with paper were too “illustrational.” She observed that watercolor could “dance” on canvas through repetitive motions of layering and washing away — a process somewhat akin to that of waves crashing on a shoreline. Her painting process cast away evidence of an artist’s hand in favor of presenting a general, ghostly softness that eased one’s eyes across a high-contrast field.

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

Otto-Knapp rose to prominence in the early aughts, when she used watercolor on top of photographs, almost completely obscuring the image beneath with hazy overlays. While she maintained the use of photographic references throughout her practice, she abandoned the notions of photorealism and representationalism to create her own timeless, abstracted environments where perspective is left behind and movement is prioritized.

Outside of her studio practice, Otto-Knapp was a well-loved professor of painting and drawing at UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture. “Silke’s incredible dedication to the department of art over this past decade makes this a profound and deeply felt loss for our community,” said artist Catherine Opie, the Lynda and Stewart Resnick professor of art at the university. “Her warmth, her commitment, and the beauty with which she pursued her work and teaching were monumental. Her many students will be forever changed by her 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 view as part of the exhibition Joan Didion: What She Means at the Hammer Museum. Solo exhibitions are set to open this month at Galerie Buchholz in New York and next month at Casa Mutina Milano in Milan, Italy.

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