Above: Sabina Ott, “pleasure for the poor,” (2013), styrofoam, plastic, pump, glitter, spray enamel, water, 52″ x 110″ x 100.″ Image via Hyperallergic.

The phrase “a spectacle and nothing strange” from a Gertrude Stein poem kept bouncing around in my mind in the days and weeks after the passing of my friend Sabina Ott, a conceptual artist who left us on June 26. Ott was very much influenced by Stein, and she was also a very community-oriented artist. Though she wasn’t from Minnesota, she did visit and print with Vermillion Editions in the late 1980s. Shortly after her passing, I went searching for her work here in the Twin Cities.

But first, who was Sabina Ott? Born in New York in 1955, Ott grew up in Los Angeles. She bounced around to San Francisco where she earned her BFA and MFA (and later taught at the San Francisco Art Institute), then to St. Louis for a stint at WashU before returning to S.F. In 2005 she landed in Chicago, where she was a professor of art at Columbia College. In Chicago, she built up a vibrant community, particularly around the project space Terrain Exhibitions, which she created on the front porch of the home she shared with husband John Paulett.

Openings were like parties, with an entire dinner table overflowing with everything from macaroons to quiche and lasagna – the more decadent the better. It was in her living room that Sabina and I first met. I felt an immediate warmth from her, a welcoming into this space that was both her home and her community. We connected quickly, and were friends from that day forward.

As an art critic, I found myself interested in her artwork as well. At the time, she was working large-scale with Styrofoam, which she’d buy in big blocks and then carve into as if it were a precious metal. But her background was in painting and printmaking, oftentimes with oil and encaustic.

The gigantic sculptures were what struck me, though – they could be walked on or over, but with no clear beginning or end. Ott was always more about the experience than the destination. And she was always dazzled by Gertrude Stein. During an interview we did in 2012 for OtherPeoplesPixels blog, Sabina said to me: “To me, Stein is the prescient literature to the Internet because her work follows the process of present, lifted, moved, re-experienced, present, lifted, moved, re-experienced."

Ott's lifetime accomplishments are vast, including winning an NEA Individual Artists Grant (1990), a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2015) and the 2015 Chicagoan of the Year in Art award. She had solo shows at the L.A. Institute of Contemporary Art, L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA), Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C., Hyde Park Art Center and Chicago Cultural Center, as well as countless exhibitions at Mark Moore Gallery (Santa Monica) and Charles Cowles Gallery (New York). Her work is in major museum collections including LACMA and the Whitney Museum in New York, and her work has been shown internationally. Even toward the very last days of her life, Ott was working her forthcoming solo exhibition, which will open January 2019 at her Chicago gallery, Aspect/Ratio, which is run by Jefferson Godard. The project is a collaboration with her longtime friend, the LA-based artist and experimental filmmaker Dana Berman Duff, who traveled to Iceland to shoot video in lava tubes and ice caves. 

Like Iceland, Minnesota has plenty of Ice. I thought, however, that Minnesota would be an unlikely place to find Sabina's work, but I was wrong. At the Minneapolis Institute of Art, I discovered two pieces of hers that I did not recognize. I only wrote about Sabina’s art that I encountered while living in Chicago, which meant works from the later part of her life. I wrote about her work for Hyperallergic, discussing sculptures such as “why is a pale white not paler than blue” (2012), a pastel spray-painted polystyrene sculpture with a clock and lights embedded into it that's influenced by an over-the-topness found in the Baroque, and her glorious functional fountain carved out of Styrofoam entitled “pleasure for the poor” (2013), which she made while at the artist residency at the Poor Farm in rural Wisconsin. This was the Sabina that I knew. But the Minneapolis artwork I discovered while grieving her loss revealed a past I wasn’t aware of — another wonderful Sabina surprise. 

In the late 80s, Ott came to Minneapolis to print with the now-defunct Vermillion Editions Limited, which was founded in 1977 and helped contribute to the revitalization of printmaking in the U.S., welcoming prominent artists such as Chuck Close, William Wegman and Nicolas Africano. After Vermillion closed up shop in 1992, the archival collection was acquired by Minneapolis Institute of Art. Ott’s piece “New Science/Landscape” (1988), a color monotype in oil-based pigments on paper, is one of the pieces now at Mia. So is “Violin” (1988), a color monotype diptych in oil-based pigments on paper. One side is an enveloping pale pink, while the other is the outline of a hand touching strings of a violin. This piece came to Mia as a gift of Romuald Tecco, former concertmaster for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, who was one of the best-known personalities in the Twin Cities classical music scene.

Left: Sabina Ott, “why is a pale white not paler than blue,” (2012), polystyrene, canvas, burlap, acrylic, spray enamel, mirror, clock, spray foam, light fixture, metal chain, 100″ x 24″ x 24″ (courtesy Riverside Arts Center) 

Above: Sabina Ott, "Violin" (1988). Vermillion Editions Limited, Minneapolis. Color monotype in oil-based pigments on paper, diptych. Gift of Mr. Romuald Tecco

Above: Sabina Ott. "New Science / Landscape" (1988). Vermillion Editions Limited, Minneapolis. Color monotype in oil-based pigments on paper. Vermillion Archival Collection, The John R. Van Derlip Fund

“Even going back to the 80s, Sabina did prints simultaneously with paintings,” said Karen Moss, a friend of Sabina’s who was Director of Education and Community Programs and a curator at Walker Art Center from 1995-99. “Because she worked in encaustic and wax a lot, she was always really interested in mixed media printmaking. She did monoprints but also wildly experimental prints ... printmaking is part of her practice going [way] back.”

On my Sabina scavenger hunt through the Twin Cities, I also discovered three lithographs at Burnet Fine Art & Advisory in Wayzata. They are all dated 1991, from the series “Mater Rosa,” which uses rose imagery (she loved the Stein line “A rose is a rose is a rose”) along with bright orange circles and dripping paint, all with the sort of vibrancy that Ott’s work embodies. It is with this aesthetic of joyfulness that I’ll remember Sabina. 

Sabina Ott. "Mater Rosa I" (1991). Lithograph and screenprint. Ed #26/40. 42 ¼ x 33 7/8” unframed

Sabina Ott. "Untitled" (1991). Lithograph. Ed #26/40. 42 1/8 x 34 1/16” unframed

Sabina Ott. "Mater Rosa III" (1991). Lithograph and screenprint. Ed #26/40. 42 ¼ x 33 7/8” unframed