File Note 85: Silke Otto-Knapp - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Rike Frank



Monday or Tuesday Images References Quote Biography Credits

Monday or Tuesday

Most texts and exhibitions are preceded by a series of conversations. During one such recent conversation with Silke Otto-Knapp, she mentioned that often in her works ‘the motif is what remains’. This comment, which initially seems to refer to a methodological or technical process in her painting, simultaneously points to a temporal structure that we encounter in the artist’s works. This places the practice within a set of relations, over and outside the sphere of painting. Or to turn this equation on its head, affords scope for the painting to become a proscenium stage within which the motif that ‘remains’ develops a new dynamic and begins to exist in the pictorial space: set against its performative-theatrical, stage-like and painted backdrop.

Taking this interest in the transposition of motifs from one space to another and from one time to another as my point of departure, I would like to explore the various time-based approaches that Silke Otto-Knapp deploys — or rather performs — in her works and in her exhibition practice.

Monday or Tuesday, the exhibition’s title, was also the title of a short story by English author Virginia Woolf, which was first published in 1921 in an eponymous anthology along with seven other texts and four woodcuts by (her sister) the painter Vanessa Bell in a print run of 1,000. There is no direct substantive link between the short story and the exhibition; earlier groups of works by Otto-Knapp also allude to Woolf’s titles, for example Kew Gardens, another short story also published in Monday or Tuesday. Referencing the botanical gardens in London, these earlier paintings — using the same technique (watercolour on canvas) as the landscapes in the current exhibition, but rendered in colour — already reveal an engagement with the topic of the landscape, not in terms of a prospectively ‘open’ or unformed gaze, but instead as a staged mode of looking at space. Woolf reportedly worked on Monday or Tuesday by way of stylistic compensation, parallel to her novel Night and Day, as a programmatic counterpart. The references to Virginia Woolf don’t operate as an allusion to her as an individual poet, or her weight as a historical figure, but instead through the prism of an interest in tonalities — as suggested by the juxtaposition of works from the Nightscapes and Seascapes series and the reduction of the colour palette to shades of black or grey.

The exhibition’s title displays many of the characteristics of a ready-made, in as much as it is a general temporal indication, referring to a moment and a period of time, yet, given its constant reiteration every week, year in, year out, it also contains an element of timelessness which challenges the criterion of specificity. A second tier of information — such as the indication of a date for example — would be needed to describe the time period less ambiguously, but also to allow Monday or Tuesday — like the motifs in the paintings — to exist in a specific space. On the other hand, the title generates the situational coexistence of a series of (historical and present) moments, which enter into relationships with each other, organised by a logic distinct from that of historical derivation: the spectator’s time; the phase of installation; the duration of the exhibition; the development of the works; and Virginia Woolf’s time, in the sense of a historic past but also as a time of artistic production, of creative writing. In Woolf’s case this suggests a different way of dealing with narrative — the non-narrative effect. This approach resonates with Otto-Knapp’s painting practice and her approach to the installation of her works in the exhibition; a concept Sabeth Buchmann also refers to in her catalogue essay: ‘an a-causal relationship of distinct motifs characterises Otto-Knapp’s individual works and series of paintings which draw the attention of the viewer to the syntactical relationship of motif and image instead of pointing to a clearly decipherable meaning.’ 1 

In this context it is interesting to note that Silke Otto-Knapp’s approach to titles — and this runs through all her groups of works — is generally not evocative and doesn’t contribute to the creation of a charged atmospheric mood, but instead seems to serve the purpose of factual classification by means of a few key words. Titles such as Geography (Islands) (2013), Stage (North & South) (2012) or also Group (approaching) (2011) trigger a process in which images from different sources are grouped together, in a fashion akin to the classification and search systems in (picture) archives.

In her essay Lipstick, powder and paint Catherine Wood argues that even if Otto-Knapp’s earlier works, up to the change from colour to the spectrum of black and grey gradations, were based on photographs, she does not operate in terms of mechanical precision: the ‘dominant logic of representation determined by the relationship between photography and painting. In other words, a logic that sees the history of painting in terms of a drive towards the depiction of ‘convincing’ three dimensional space on canvas, as seen from a single fixed viewpoint at a moment in time, …’ 2 The paintings nonetheless do not simply reflect questions pertaining to contemporary (artistic) relationships to space 3, but also explore forms of visual representation and their reproduction. Here the tonality, as mentioned above, once more plays an essential role, for the black pigment of the nocturnal landscapes, at times densely applied, is reminiscent of the powdery toner of old black-and-white photocopiers. 

A characteristic feature of Otto-Knapp’s technique is the inversion of the working process — important also in the context of her reflection on temporalities, historical time and processual structures such as those underlying the transpositions of spaces, media and times. By choosing not to build up layers of paint, instead developing the motif by washing away, subtracting colour information in a process of negative mark-making, she sets herself the challenge of engaging in a diametrically opposed mode of thought and inaction that can only partially be anticipated, thus heightening the non-narrative effect. The given characteristics of the material and the technique also come into play: the dissolving of the watercolours on the canvas, the movement in the wake of the brushstrokes, which is no longer directed, and traces of the drying process. These keep the emphasis on temporality present on another level and gradually diminish the painting’s material surface until it appears translucent.

In addition to the aspects discussed above, the idea of the motif as the element that remains mentioned at the beginning of this essay, also relates to Otto-Knapp’s way of dealing with historical references. She allows these to remain as motifs, whilst the other parameters — such as tonality — are changed and recalibrated. Thus the motif enters into a new spatiotemporal relationship and begins to exist in the texture of the pictorial space, which it opens up and at the same time places within and beyond the medium — the mediation and staging of materials, textures and temporalities.

Two distinct tonalities also structure the exhibition’s installation: in the first space the artist combines graphically strong landscapes in a group of paintings that use a colour gradation from light to very opaque black; and a group of performers emerging from the darkness with a series of etchings in Three Seascapes (Eclipse and coastline; third movement; trees and moon) (2013). The prints offer nuanced inflections in the density of their (colour) information — determined by the technical process and variation in brushstrokes. The range in colour intensity shows that the movement intrinsic to the paintings is not connected by the motif — in other words, it is not generated by the movement portrayed, as the choreographies and stage sets might suggest — but instead connects back to the process of display: both in terms of the viewer’s perspective and through a theatricality: ‘a view to a pictorial “texture” that is principally transmedial’.4 This programmatic approach continues into the second space, where a group of works, all executed in a reduced palette of greys, develops a scarcely tangible texture, which seems to exist like a staged space composed of light — be it a landscape or a de facto scene from a Francis Poulenc ballet: it is a light that has travelled through the traditions of projection in painting, moving images and the performative setting of the proscenium stage.


1 Sabeth Buchmann, ‘Landscapes on Stage: The Works of Silke Otto-Knapp’, Monday or Tuesday, Charlottenborg, 2013, p. 9.

2 Catherine Wood, ‘Lipstick, powder and paint’, Silke Otto-Knapp, Present time exercise, Modern Art Oxford, The Banff Centre, Koenig Books, 2009, p. 12.

3  ‘The paintings are informed by the question of the historical and contemporary nature of such spaces and media in which attitudes, styles and discourses are tested and established.’ Sabeth Buchmann, op.cit. p. 9.

4 Sabeth Buchmann, op.cit. p. 9.

Elizabeth Bishop North & SouthA Cold Spring Houghton Mifflin (1955)

Barabara J Bloemink, Linda Nochlin, Elisabeth Sussman Florine Stettheimer: Manhattan Fantastica Whitney Museum of American Art (1995)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Dir.) Effi Briest (1974) 

Natalia Gontcharova, Bronislava Nijinska, Igor Stravinsky, Les Noces [The Wedding] (performed 13 June 1923); The Firebird and Les Noces Royal Ballet, London, DVD (2010)

Mary Heilmann The All Night Movie Hauser & Wirth, Zürich (2000)

Yvonne Rainer Feelings are Facts MIT Press (2006)

Yvonne Rainer Work 1961–73 Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (1974)

Frances Stark Frances Stark: Collected Writing: 1993−2003 Book Works (2003)

Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, Florine Stettheimer, Four Saints in Three Acts Opera (first performed Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 7 February, 1934)

‘Radiating to a point men’s feet and women’s feet, black or gold-crusted — (This foggy weather — Sugar? No, thank you — The commonwealth of the future) — the firelight darting and making the room red, save for the black figures and their bright eyes, while outside a van discharges, Miss Thingummy drinks tea at her desk, and plate glass preserves fur coats.’ Virginia Woolf, excerpt from Monday or Tuesday


Silke Otto-Knapp was born in Osnabrück, Germany in 1970. She trained at the University of Hildesheim and at Chelsea College of Art and Design, London. Otto-Knapp moved to London in 1995 and had a solo exhibition in Art Now, Tate Britain in 2005. This exhibition will present a new departure in the work since her show at Modern Art Oxford in 2009. Her other solo exhibitions include: Geography and Plays, Charlottenborg, Copenhagen (2013); Lilac Garden (rehearsal), Sadler’s Wells, London (2011); A light in the moon, UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, CA (2011); Many many women, Kunstverein Munich, Munich (2010). Group exhibitions include: À ciel ouvert : Le nouveau pleinairisme, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Québec City (curated by Kitty Scott, 2012); and Dance/Draw (curated by Helen Molesworth), ICA Boston, Boston (2011). She now lives and works between London and L.A. where she has recently been appointed Associate Professor in Fine Art at UCLA. Silke Otto-Knapp is represented by Greengrassi, London; Galerie Buchholz, Cologne; and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York.


Rike Frank is a writer and curator based in Berlin.