Lauren O’Neill-Butler on Silke Otto-Knapp

When German artist Silke Otto-Knapp (1970–2022) passed away from ovarian cancer last October, she left behind a quietly impactful oeuvre. Her serene grayscale paintings created over the past decade or so—of silhouetted figures, subdued landscapes—often put me in mind of Romantic composers, such as Frédéric Chopin. Like his music, her art feels timeless, even when it culls from the past to say something prescient about today and tomorrow. Often the message has something to do with evanescence, a quality that echoes throughout works that achieve a potent ambiguity between flatness and depth, wherein the figure/ground relationship is unclear, unstable. This precariousness can be attributed to her unique painting process, for which she became well known, of applying layers of watercolor (mostly black in recent years) to canvas, then adding or subtracting from the work via paint and water.

The figures in her images—namely, dancers, her primary subject—are typically rendered faceless while executing the subtlest of movements, eerily removed from their original contexts (such as early-twentieth-century photographs of the Ballet Russes, or documentation of Yvonne Rainer’s performances from the 1960s). During the last few years of her life, Otto-Knapp was clearly interested in a distilled form of physicality—not just a dancer’s, but also her own, especially while making art—and how that awareness affected the density of her medium as she pushed it around the canvas. The three triptychs in “Versammlung” (Gathering), her solo show at Galerie Buchholz, are an excellent case in point. Lined up in a row and splitting the exhibition space lengthwise, the stand-alone screens (each roughly six-and-a-half by twelve feet) evoke stage sets, thus placing the viewer directly into her “productions,” realms of ephemerality and labor, as underscored by the evidence of fingerprints and paint spills on the backs of the panels.

In Untitled (Versammlung I) (all works 2022), Otto-Knapp pays homage to Swiss painter, photographer, set designer, and Bauhaus alumnus Xanti Schawinsky. The piece depicts two figures, respectively rendered as a photographic positive and negative, ribbon dancing on the work’s outermost left and right panels. The images were taken from Schawinsky’s Spectodrama, 1936–37, a performance that included folded-paper costumes, light projections, and live music. Next to it is Untitled (Versammlung II), which references a still from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1970 film Beware of a Holy Whore. Showing nine shadowy characters posing on a staircase, the painting effortlessly captures the jagged, druggy atmosphere of the movie, a semiautobiographical tale about a cast and crew that progressively fall to pieces as they await the arrival of their director.

When I first encountered Otto-Knapp’s alluring output well over a decade ago, I didn’t want to know too much about her process, lest the canvases lose their oneiric mystery. Instead, I was more fascinated by how the artist queried modernism’s approach to space, deftly warping its methods and orthodoxies for stranger, deeper effects. Untitled (Versammlung III) does this immaculately. Here, the artist adapted a photograph of a couple embracing from a 1930 production of The Threepenny Opera. Once again, the same image, made positive and negative, is duplicated across the work’s two outermost panels. Regarding this piece, the artist aptly noted, “In Bertolt Brecht’s play there is no person who is only good or bad: the criminal can also be an honorable citizen—and vice versa. The motif of the embrace, in which the characters almost become one in all their antagonism and contradiction, has something desperate and deeply touching about it. It is an expression of an intimacy that only seems to exist in this moment and only on stage.” Through her restrained palette and approach, Otto-Knapp ultimately memorialized her dramaturgical subjects and in doing so captured something desperate and deeply touching, indeed.

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