Artist Silke Otto-Knapp, 52, dies of ovarian cancer

Silke Otto-Knapp, an artist whose unusual technique of painting using layered watercolors on canvas to create large, enigmatic landscapes or moving figures, attracted international attention in a career that spanned more than two decades, died Sunday morning at her home in Pasadena.

Two years ago, Otto-Knapp was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which recently became aggressive. Her death was confirmed by Regen Projects, the Los Angeles gallery representing her work. She was 52.

In the Waiting Room (7), a monumental three-part painting featuring seven figures stretching, kneeling, dancing, sprawling and otherwise engaging in physical exertion, was featured in a Regen Projects exhibition last year. As with much of her work, the painting was created by applying delicate layers of watercolor, some of which Otto-Knapp then washed with a sponge or swept away with a dry brush.

Transparent paint seeps into the canvas fabric, leaving behind visually elusive traces. Some were effectively erased while the rest were pushed into adjacent areas where they built up. The ephemeral result is an image of shimmering, mercurial figures in optically dense and visually absorbing spaces.

Silke Otto-Knapp, "Monotone (moon scene after Samuel Palmer)," 2016, watercolor on canvas

Silke Otto-Knapp, “Monotone (Moonlit Scene after Samuel Palmer)”, 2016, watercolor on canvas

(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

Poetic landscapes and seascapes made up another outstanding body of work, at times reminiscent of restless paintings by Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch, visionary landscapes by British romanticist Samuel Palmer, or floating clouds by American artist Georgia O’Keeffe. For the 2016 Biennale “Made in LA” at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Westwood, Otto-Knapp completed a monumental six-part painting for the front stairwell. Under a glowing moon, silver-grey islands and rocky promontories seem to float in a vast, black, watery expanse.

Otto-Knapp’s figure paintings often refer to dance. She was particularly drawn to the performance elements that reflected what she called “everyday movements,” such as simply reaching, bending, or walking. The Ballets Russes, Polish dancer Bronislava Nijinska, and American choreographer Yvonne Rainer are among the notable dance artists whose work influenced her paintings.

In 2011 she took part in open rehearsals in the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern, where British choreographer Michael Clark was preparing a public performance with 50 amateur dancers. The track “TH” featured a thoughtful pop music soundtrack by David Bowie, Pulp and Kraftwerk and a monochrome set design. The bodies of dancers she met there found their way into Otto Knapp’s paintings.

The layering of watercolors to evoke movement or change also influenced her production of unique etchings. In some, three different plates were printed at different stages of production so that no single image appears fixed or unchanging.

Born in Osnabrück, Germany, Otto-Knapp grew up on a dairy farm, which led to her deep interest in the outdoors. She has a degree in Cultural Studies from the University of Hildesheim and a Master of Fine Arts from the London School, formerly Chelsea College of Art and Design. Her first solo shows in Los Angeles were at the Overduin and Kite Gallery in 2009 and 2013. In 2015, she joined the faculty at UCLA as an adjunct professor of painting and drawing.

Otto-Knapp’s work has been exhibited internationally, including in galleries and museums in Berlin, Tokyo, Copenhagen, London, Vienna and Rome, as well as in Los Angeles. Her work is in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, Tate Modern, and others. Currently, a two-part pant, Monotone (Moonlit Scene after Samuel Palmer), is included in Joan Didion: What She Means, a 63-artist group show designed to evoke the late California writer’s ethos that opens this week at the Hammer Museum . A solo exhibition is scheduled to open later this month at the Buchholz Gallery in New York.

Otto-Knapp is survived by sister Iris Madill; sister Kirsten Otto-Knapp and her husband Holger; and nieces and nephews Jannik, Sophie and Matilda Otto-Knapp and Alfie Madill. Artist Silke Otto-Knapp, 52, dies of ovarian cancer

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