Sabrina Ott, An Appreciation

Posted by: Roy Wilbur


This piece by Melissa Potter appeared originally on Hyperallergic

When I arrived to Chicago from New York in 2008, Sabina Ott adopted me as part of her massive network of fans. She had an uncanny ability to become an intimate friend in short time, and offered devoted mentorship, critique, and exuberance for the community she defined through her unique combination of West Coast “wild child” and Midwest socially-engaged curatorial practice.

After a long struggle with cancer, she died in the early hours of June 26, 2018. In her Zava’ah, an Ethical Will in the Jewish custom, she wrote, “Live to give. The only reason we are here is to give.” Ott believed art is a gift to the world. As her studio practice evolved, she became a curator who offered hundreds of artists’ opportunities at a historic moment in Chicago’s community practice movement. Her community is at a standstill with the loss of such a charismatic thinker and maker.

Ott was born in New York City in 1955, and grew up in Los Angeles. She received her BFA and MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied with Karen Finley. In a Facebook tribute, Finley writes, “We [Sabina and I] were inspired by the possibility of the imagination.”

Her career took off exponentially in the late 80s. Over the next four decades, she exhibited her work internationally with solo and group exhibitions at LA County Museum of Art, the Corcoran, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and galleries in Brazil and Australia. A voracious reader, her painting, sculpture, installation, sound, and video works were imbued with metaphors drawn from epic poetry, utopianism, and surrealism. Her most enduring influence was Gertrude Stein, whose defiance of basic syntax and semiotics inspired Ott’s colorful, immersive environments featuring words as sculptures and inspirational texts. Her work, called “social, democratic, and celebratory” by her friend Chris Kraus garnered many prestigious awards including the National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship (1990), the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2015), and the 2015 Chicagoan of the Year in Art (2015).

Ott’s baroque sense of “overdoing it” was brought to life in her 2015 solo exhibition who cares for the sky? at Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. Ott built an 8,000-cubic-foot polystyrene and spray foam mountain (with assistance from SpaceHaus), that maxed out the gallery space while creating an intimate invitation to participate. Inspired by Gertrude Stein’s only children’s book, The World is Round, gallery-goers could climb atop the mountain, as well as enter its cave-cum-gallery featuring 100 artworks made by her beloved artist colleagues. The installation merged her studio and community practices in what was arguably her magnum opus.

Ott arrived in Chicago in 2005 to become the Chair of Art and Design at Columbia College Chicago. In 2011, she founded Terrain Exhibitions with her husband, writer and educator John Paulett. Terrain featured installations and interventions in the front yard of their Oak Park home, and later through two city-wide biennials.

Image of Sabrina Ott courtesy of Chicago Now

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