Sabina Ott (1955–2018)

Sabina Ott. Photo: The artists’ estate and Aspect/Ratio Gallery.

I FIRST MET SABINA OTT in the mid 1990s when she was making a series of large encaustic paintings that she titled Sub Rosa. They featured a mixture of geometric and cloudlike, decorative shapes arranged above slanting lines, suggesting an aerial viewpoint. Lone or paired alphabet letters were buried under the wax, but they didn't say anything. The paintings were triggered when she read Gertrude Stein—and they, or the idea, continued to grow until they were no longer paintings. Stripes of deep color leapt out of the frames and onto wood plinths, and eventually onto the walls of the gallery. As she later told me, “There's something so beautiful and inexplicable about the way Stein takes an everyday object, removes it from its context, and then places it next to another familiar thing in the wrong way. The syntaxes switch, everything is thrown up in the air and falls down, and then you can experience it again in a fresh way.”

Our friendship began as a series of studio visits that always devolved into gossip. I didn't know much about visual art at the time and had yet to start writing about it. But Sabina's belief and the inherent logic of her process—which was always present, no matter how scrambled—made more than sense of the viewing experience. It turned the daunting, opaque task of looking at visual art into a marvelous game of unwrapping. Watching Sabina at work over the years helped me understand visual art and the mysterious process through which one thing leads to another.

A trip to the Australian Red Desert in 1995 prompted her to use video in tandem with paintings for the first time, and from here her work grew until the paintings were just one element of her installations. Eventually, they'd disappear, although video remained an increasingly important element, functioning, in her last major installation, who cares for the sky?, 2016, as a kind of central control point.

Sabina Ott, who cares for the sky? (detail), 2016, polystyrene, spray foam, birdcage, and artificial birds, dimensions variable.

Sabina moved to Chicago in 2007 to chair the Columbia College art department. Moving three times in a decade between cities and jobs, her exhibition career had grown dormant. She arrived in Chicago determined to stay and to deeply engage with the city's artistic community. A 2010 residency at Michelle Grabner and Brad Killiam's Poor Farm in rural Wisconsin would prove pivotal. Here, she made Styrofoam sculpture for the first time, and she conceived the idea of Terrain: a miniature Kunsthalle on the porch and postage-stamp yard of the Oak Park home that she shared with her husband, John Paulett. As she explained in a 2013 essay for the Art Section, “Making that piece [at the Poor Farm] led my work in a new direction, and my work has similarities with Terrain in that each piece is a hybrid of functional objects and art genres. . . . A front yard is defined by its boundaries and property lines but can be seen all day long, all year long.”

In Chicago, Ott's work exploded into massive installations like here and there pink melon joy, 2014-15, and who cares for the sky?, which involved the participation of hundreds of people; as well as an ongoing series of witchy, stand-alone objects, some of which were exhibited in her 2016 gallery show, “always repeating is all of living.” Sabina Ott's last finished work, made in collaboration with the artist and filmmaker Dana Berman Duff, will be installed in Chicago at Aspect/Ratio Gallery in January.

Chris Kraus is the author of the essay and story collection Social Practices, forthcoming from Semiotext(e) at the end of October.