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 June 26 passing of my friend Sabina Ott, a conceptual artist very much influenced by Stein.
Shortly after her death, I went searching for Sabina's work in the Twin Cities. The art I discovered while grieving her loss revealed a past I wasn't aware of — both a pleasant surprise and a path to learn more about a friend and sometimes mentor who changed me in ways I wouldn't realize until many years later.
But first, who was Sabina Ott? A community-minded artist, a fierce feminist and fighter for social justice, an engaging professor and mentor to students far and wide, Sabina was born in New York in 1955 but grew up in Los Angeles, earned her BFA and MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute (where she later taught), and then bounced to Pasadena, Calif., and St. Louis for teaching jobs.
I met her in Chicago, where she had landed in 2005 as a professor at Columbia College. She built up a vibrant community in that city, 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 a dinner table overflowing with everything from macaroons to quiche and lasagna — the more decadent the better. It was there that Sabina and I met. I felt an immediate warmth from her, a welcoming into this space that was both her home and her community.
At the time, she was working large-scale with Styrofoam, which she'd buy in big blocks and then carve, shaping it as she pleased. Her background was in painting and printmaking, often with oil and encaustic, but the gigantic sculptures were what struck me — they could be walked on or over, but with no clear beginning or end. Sabina was always more about the experience than the destination. And she was always dazzled by Gertrude Stein.
"To me, Stein is the prescient literature to the internet," she told me during an interview we did in 2012, "because her work follows the process of present, lifted, moved, reexperienced, present, lifted, moved, reexperienced."
The Chicago Tribune named her its Chicagoan of the Year in Art in 2015. It was just one in a string of accomplishments that included a Guggenheim fellowship and solo shows at such museums as the Institute of Contemporary Art and LACMA in Los Angeles and the Corcoran Gallery in D.C. Her work has been shown internationally and is in major museum collections including the Whitney in New York.
In her final days, she was working on an installation that will open in January at the Chicago gallery Aspect/Ratio. The project is a collaboration with a longtime friend, L.A.-based artist Dana Berman Duff, who went to Iceland to shoot video in lava tubes and ice caves. They originally planned to go together, but brain tumors prevented Sabina from traveling.
"She didn't want it to be morbid or scary, but hoped for it to be deep, sexy, mortal, and I want it to be somehow thrilling," said Duff. "We'll do our best to realize her desires."
An invitation to Minneapolis
Even though Sabina spent the last 13 years of her life in Chicago, I thought Minnesota would be an unlikely place to find her work. I was wrong. Artist networks are expansive, and hers included connections to this state.
In the basement of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), I discovered two pieces of hers that I did not recognize. They were unlike her gigantic artworks I encountered while living in Chicago — like the Baroque over-the-topness of "why is a pale white not paler than blue" (2012), a pastel spray-painted polystyrene sculpture with a clock and lights embedded into it, or "pleasure for the poor" (2013), a glorious functional fountain she carved out of Styrofoam during a residency at Poor Farm in Wisconsin.
Sabina had established herself as an artist-to-watch in Los Angeles when she came to Minneapolis in 1988 to print with Vermillion Editions. This legendary press, founded in 1977 by master printer Steven Andersen, helped contribute to the revitalization of printmaking in the United States, welcoming prominent artists such as Chuck Close, William Wegman and Nicolas Africano. In 1992 its archival collection was acquired by Mia.
That's how I found "New Science/Landscape," a color monotype Sabina made at Vermillion using oil-based pigments on paper. The bottom half of this diptych is a yellow-hued landscape with a sphere, cone, cube and cylinder in the foreground, while the top half depicts an overcast sky against a body of blue water, perhaps a Minnesota lake.
Vermillion's founder had met Sabina during a visit to Los Angeles, where he was working with a few well-known male artists including Ed Moses, Ed Ruscha and Dennis Hopper.
"She was like the hot dog — she was the hottest young female painter in the L.A. scene when I ran into her out on Venice Beach," recounted Andersen by phone. "We were all having lunch and she came running over. She clammed onto me and asked me to come look at her work. She had big reviews, she was on her way to New York and was gonna be a big deal."
Andersen recalls being impressed with her work, and she was similarly impressed that he visited her studio. He invited her to come to Minneapolis and make some prints.
The experience stuck with Andersen, who continues to work with Ruscha and others under the Vermillion name.
"She wasn't doing stuff that was easily translatable into printmaking," he explained. "I had just finished developing this technique to do monoprints, which no one in the country was doing — my prints looked like paintings. She was a quick learner and a quick painter. She could whip up a 30- by 28-inch monoprint in minutes."
The hunt continues
Mia isn't the only major Minnesota museum where Sabina's work landed. Last year Andersen donated several Ott prints and a painting to the Weisman Art Museum.
Sabina had given him the painting, an "Untitled" diptych from 1987 showing a silver glass from above, and a beach. The prints include another diptych, "New Science/Silhouette" (1988), and a 1987 print called "Small Woods Quad" — four green-hued panels of sparsely populated forest landscapes.
Weisman curator Diane Mullin was enthusiastic about the gift, having first learned of Sabina's work in the 1980s as an intern at Walker Art Center.
"She was an extremely important artist working in the public sphere but with domestic issues," said Mullin. "Sabina Ott was thinking and talking about the overlap of the spaces, which comes out of that '70s feminism that wanted to expose that interior domestic space. Terrain Exhibitions [Sabina's home-based gallery in Chicago] was a perfect way to talk about shared spaces and private spaces."
Sabina was "more important than people realize," Mullin said, pointing to the ways in which her practice paved the way for the alternative art space movement. She also ran a space in San Francisco called Jetwave in the 1970s. "With the current interest and excitement around public-practice art, sometimes we forget this lineage that comes through the '70s and people like Sabina who made it, really," Mullin said.
I had the opportunity to view Sabina's work upon request. Will others get to see it? Mullin said the Weisman is planning to exhibit it soon, probably at the beginning of 2019.
A violinist's gift
Sabina's other Vermillion monotype at Mia is a gorgeous diptych called "Violin" (1988). One side is an enveloping pale pink, while the other shows the outline of a hand fingering the strings of a violin.
The print belonged to Romuald Tecco, former concertmaster for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Tecco bought the piece in 1990 or 1991, and gave it to Mia upon his retirement in 1998, figuring it would be too big to fit in his New York apartment. Although he didn't know Sabina personally, he treasured the work.
"It was beautiful and meant a lot to me; I loved the ghost effect on the pink half," said Tecco, reached in France via e-mail.
Painting and printmaking often happened simultaneously for Sabina, who was extremely prolific, outgoing and energetic.
"Even going back to the '80s, Sabina did prints simultaneously with paintings," said Karen Moss, a friend of Sabina's who was a curator and education director at Walker Art Center from 1995 to 1999. "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 1991 lithographs at Burnet Fine Art & Advisory in Wayzata, from the series "Mater Rosa," which uses rose imagery — she loved the Stein line "A rose is a rose is a rose."
With bright orange circles and dripping paint, they radiate the sort of vibrancy Sabina's work embodies — an aesthetic of joyfulness that ensures her art will live on.