PRINT January 2023


SILKE OTTO-KNAPP (1970–2022)

Silke Otto-Knapp, Mendocino, CA, January 2021. Photo: Sharon Lockhart.

OUR DEAR FRIEND Silke Otto-Knapp left us on the full moon of October 9. Silke was unprepared to go, and we were unprepared for her to leave. In the studio she had recently built in her garden were preparatory sketches, models, one finished work, one incomplete work, and several primed canvases she had been working on. The title “Versammlung,” roughly meaning a gathering or assembly, was fitting for the group of paintings that made it to Galerie Buchholz in New York for the opening of her show there on October 28. They depicted groups of figures (women) gathered in sets on folding screens. But to her friends it was a bittersweet reminder of the many gatherings Silke hosted in her home and garden in Pasadena, where we celebrated birthdays and holidays together. She loved to entertain and had friends from all walks of life and from all around the world. Her cheerful, easy demeanor and clearly reasoned responses to any problem you could throw at her made her an indispensable part of so many lives.

Although Silke first visited Los Angeles in 2001, I wouldn’t meet her until 2006, in a London taxi. In my time with her, she was always traveling. In 2015, after several long visits, Silke moved from Vienna to LA, where she taught at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. Yet as soon as school was out, she would leave again for a residency or exhibition or to visit family and friends. She loved anywhere on the ocean, whether Captiva Island, Fårö, Big Sur, or Mendocino, but her most treasured place was Fogo Island, off the coast of Newfoundland. After numerous residencies at Fogo Island Arts, she purchased and restored a classic saltbox house with friends, returning to this second home every chance she got.

Silke was a woman of the land and sea as well as an erudite woman of the city. Her work reflected both sides of her.

I always thought of Silke as one of my more cosmopolitan friends. She was cultured, well-read, and fashionable. However, it was only when I visited Fogo this past summer that I came to fully understand another side of her. Silke knew everyone on the island. She loved them dearly, and they loved her like she was family. If I mentioned in the convenience store or hardware store that I was friends with her, a big smile would come over people’s faces and they would say, “Yes, of course I know Silke. You always know where you stand with her.” I think she had hiked every trail on the island and had visited the surrounding islands on boats fishing for cod. Having grown up on a dairy farm, she was a woman of the land and sea as well as an erudite woman of the city.

Silke Otto-Knapp, Untitled (Versammlung III), 2022, triptych, watercolor on canvas. Installation view, Galerie Buchholz, New York. © Silke Otto-Knapp.

Her work reflected both sides of her. The austere and empty landscapes inspired by her trips to Fogo and the northern coast of California found their opposite, but somehow also their perfect complement, in the figural works, which often displayed groups of people, dancers or performers, and were based in her deep knowledge of dance and theater. Choreography, the stage, and textiles were some of the first things we bonded over. She was a keen observer of gesture and of the ways bodies create form. An inveterate researcher and experimenter, she was always looking for new ways to expand her practice while being mindful of the histories and contexts that shaped it. Since her process was physical and she preferred to work alone in the studio, the size of her canvases had been limited to roughly the size of her body. Wanting to engage architectural space in a rigorous way, she developed the idea of piecing them together in panels. More recently, she had devised a way to make the paintings themselves architectural by turning them into freestanding screens. She had previously employed live performance as a way of foregrounding the relationship of painting to stage sets, made dresses to draw a relationship to costume, and developed textiles that expanded the architectural possibilities for her work. She was in the exploratory stages of creating a set of frescoes. As with all artists whose lives are cut short, it is heartbreaking to think of the work unmade, the directions in which she might have taken her practice.

Silke seemed effortless in the way she undertook living. She seemed to accomplish more in a day than I could in a week. Always traveling, always working in the studio, always hosting dinners, teaching, and being there for her friends. I will miss her relentless forward movement. 

Sharon Lockhart is an artist based in Los Angeles.