BY Stefan Kalmár in Opinion | 18 NOV 22

Remembering Silke Otto-Knapp (1970–2022)

Stefan Kalmár shares his recollections of the artist in this personal ode to their friendship

BY Stefan Kalmár in Opinion | 18 NOV 22

Stefan Kalmár writes a personal note to his friend Silke Otto-Knapp, the artist and professor of painting and drawing at UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture, Los Angeles who died last month of ovarian cancer at the age of 52.

Losing you is like losing the other side of a story.

Sometimes, our biographies make us the most unlikely protagonists on someone else’s stage. It was 1990 when we met. You took me to the nightclub Heaven and I gave you your first red lipstick. We studied Judith Butler, John Fiske, Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci at a time when Theodor Adorno and Jean Baudrillard were top-shelf material. We were given homework like: ‘Please apply today’s reading list to your understanding of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach”.’ Do you remember the mural you painted over my bed? I wonder what happened to it?

Portrait of Silke Otto-Knapp
Portrait of Silke Otto-Knapp. Photograph: Coley Brown

While the boys at our university – Søren, Jan, Daniel and Bernd – were absorbed by contextual practices (Kontext Kunst), you were more interested in Jonathan Lasker, while your obsession with Eva Hesse was matched only by your love for Isa Genzken, particularly her early elliptical works. I remember the lecture you gave on Hesse as part of our seminar, explicitly making the point that she had died young from a brain tumour. It was also around that time you first told me you had lost your mother to cancer.

We read Parkett and Texte zur Kunst (yes, both!), and Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel was our gegenwart (present). I don’t think we even knew art fairs existed 30 years ago. You introduced me to the writings of Stuart Morgan; we read Hervé Guibert and watched Derek Jarman’s Blue [1993] and documentaries about gay men dying of AIDS. You were convinced my first boyfriend was straight.

'Before and After: The Fall’
Silke Otto-Knapp (right) in a publicity photo for Michael Clark’s 'Before and After: The Fall’, 2000. Courtesy: Stefan Kalmár. photograph: Jake Walters

One day, you reached your limit with Hildesheim: it became too small for you. After all, it was not far from your family’s dairy farm in the village you grew up in. You were done with that place, there was no looking back.

You may not always know what you want, but you certainly know what you don’t want. You are driven by a forward-looking determination. Forever searching, experiencing and absorbing, you maintain a studied vigilance for the dangers that life throws your way. More a tea than a coffee person, you are freaked out by the idea of mind-altering substances. Yet, you are often drawn to literary figures, musicians and choreographers who use them.

The Waiting Room
Silke Otto-Knapp, 'The Waiting Room', 2000, exhibition view, The Renaissance Society. Courtesy: greengrassi, London

You stage your own watching, not a form of voyeurism – never Instagram, never Facebook – but curious observations of life. From the scenes you painted of the Huntington Botanical Gardens to the choreography of Michael Clark and Yvonne Rainer, composition for you is not an abstract category but a set of rules by which we are made to relate, made to perform.

Through all our moves, we remained extremely close and loyal to each other, just as I know you are to so many of your friends. In Los Angeles and its quasi-antipode Fogo Island, you built a set in which you felt most at ease, most at home: it really now has become your stage. It is evident for all to see, indeed it always has been, you ‘arrived’, which makes your death so much more painful. As your exhibition, ‘In the Waiting Room’ (2020), made clear: you were ready – not to die.

Current exhibitions: Versammlung’, Buchholz Gallery, New York until 7 January 2023 and Silke Otto-Knapp, Mutina, Milan, 18 November 2022 – 31 March 2023

Forthcoming exhibitions: Silke Otto-Knapp, Hamburger Kunstverein, August 2023

Thumbnail image: Portrait of Silke Otto-Knapp. Photograph: Coley Brown

Main image: Silke Otto-Knapp, 'The Waiting Room', 2000, exhibition view. Courtesy: Regen Projects

Stefan Kalmár is co-director of OCTO-Productions, Marseille and former director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London