Klaus Ottmann - Biography
Klaus Ottmann (b. 1954) began as a philosophy student, earning a Masters Degree from Freie Universität Berlin, in 1980. After twenty years, Ottmann would return to the classroom and earn a PhD., from the European Graduate School.
The two decades that separate his involvement in academia were anything but a hiatus. Ottmann has curated over forty exhibitions thus far in his career. Between 1988 and 1995 Ottmann was the curator of Exhibitions at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery, which focuses on contemporary art, exhibiting the works of both professionals, and students of Wesleyan University’s art program. During his time at Wesleyan University, Ottmann inscribed himself into its history; leaving tracks and horizons for both future students and successors. He implemented an original exhibitions program, which balanced exhibiting both established and emerging artists, while focusing on contemporary American and European art since the 1960s. He provided a platform for the future of art to speak, and an opportunity for the past and present to be heard. The list of artists who graced the stage that Ottman had set is large, but the number of people who embraced the stage is endless. While Franz Erhard Walther, Astrid Klein, Mary Kelly, Kiki Smith, Jessica Stockholder, and Tom Friedman were given the opportunity to be heard, countless students were offered new horizons. Certainly not unaware of Dostoyevsky’s famous words, Ottmann did a part in helping art do what it can do, that is – and in his own words: “art has the power to change the world … by addressing or reflecting our deepest fears and the existential questions of the human condition”.
To conceive of Ottmann as a mere exhibitor, would be inadequate. His philosophical musings extended to art and the art of exhibition. During his time at Wesleyan he initiated and taught courses on contemporary theory and exhibition practice; courses whose importance and popularity have inscribed them as a pivot of the schools curriculum to this day. In an age where it is increasingly difficult to distinguish art from design, entertainment and window dressing, Ottmann’s philosophical ruminations and education have traced his work in art with an undeniable and properly aesthetic dimension. We can say that it is not so much that Ottmann permits the thoughts of Theodore Adorno, Blaise Pascal, Yves Klein and others to influence works and shows, but rather, that he imposes a discipline on art, thereby saving it from (perverting?- check) itself.
In 1996 Ottmann moved to the American Federation of Arts, in New York, where he served as the Curator of Exhibitions. The American Federation of Arts had a much broader focus, and substantially larger resources then the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery. Despite this disparity in weight, a particular, and certainly for Ottmann, essential identity remained, namely, a focus of exhibition and education. As Curator of the AFA, Ottmann conceived numerous original exhibitions, and collaborated with other enviable figures in the field to develop and implement exhibitions, which traveled across the globe. A man of his word, he utilized the principles and affordances of the AFA to bring art and people together, for the good of both.
From 2008 to 2010, Ottmann served as the Robert Lehman Curator at The Parrish Art Museum, in Southampton, New York. The Museum focused on exhibiting pre-eminent contemporary art, which finds its roots in the north-east coast of America, including the works of Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, Lee Krasner, Fairfield Porter, and others.
Perhaps the most important element of Ottmann’s work is his prodigious and relentless writing on aesthetics. His texts on Yves Klein and Mark Rothko alone reveal both his talent and purpose. Two artists whose seemingly simple work is so often deprecated, if not openly deplored, are by Ottman’s pen clearly distinguished from those driven into conceptual and abstract art not by disciplined rebellion and sophisticated negation, but by a lack of talent equaled only by a lack of thought. Mark Rothko, classified as an abstract expressionist, never ceased to deny the denotation, doing so on grounds similar to those used by Ottmann in his defense. The perception by some in the art-world that there is nothing but a coarse hand behind his lines, is to miss the philosophical, mythological and psychoanalytic body behind and before the canvas, as drastically and pathetically, as dandy rebels, who think that ‘left’ means ‘not doing it right’, and consider their three week hobbies in art to be improvement and extensions of the disciplined and wretched work of those properly called artists. Yves Klein, perhaps the leading member of Nouveau réalisme, and a pioneer of both performance and minimal art, is often reduced to nothing more than a man with a paint-roller, by both the untrained eye, and even worse, by the decadence of over-the-hill realists. To force this equation is no less then to see no difference between the square and the background. This obvious and yet difficult to ascertain distinction, tirelessly stressed by Ottmann, is a redemption by distinction, for both Rothko and Klein. Ottmann, we think its fair to say, prescribes to the Badiouian thesis that discipline is not opposed to liberty and creativity, but their very condition.
Aside from his books on Yves Klein and Mark Rothko (Yves Klein by Himself: His Life and Thought; Yves Klein: Works, Writings; The Essential Mark Rothko) Ottmann has also tackled the grueling question of art in post-modernity (The Genius Decision: The extraordinary and the Postmodern Condition), and published a collection of his writings on art, entitled Thought Through my Eyes: Writings on Art, 1977–2005, where he fused, or perhaps, sublates philosophy and contemporary art. The collection includes his critically acclaimed essays: Painting in an Age of Anxiey, The Solid and the Fluid: Bartlett, Laib, Kiefer, The Spectacle of Chaos, Heidegger, Beuys, and the Consequences, Spiritual Materiality: Contemporary Sculpture and the Responsibility of Forms, The Art of Happenstance: The Performative Sculptures of James Lee Byars, Frank Stella's Prince of Ambiguity, along with numerous interviews with some of the foremost contemporary artists, including: Richard Serra, Wolfgang Laib, Jeff Koons, and Jessica Stockholder.
Since 1991 Ottmann has served as the publisher and editor of the Journal of Contemporary Art, which features interviews, conversations and collaborative projects with many of the leading figures in contemporary art, including: Marina Abramovic, Arakawa, Judith Barry, Barbara Bloom, Larry Clark, Christo, Dan Graham, Gilbert & George, Leon Golub, Antony Gormley, Imi Knoebel, Jeff Koons, Jonathan Lasker, Wolfgang Laib, Rita McBride, Mariko Mori, Takashi Murakami, Cady Noland, Adrian Piper, Mimmo Rotella, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman, Bill Viola, and Sue Williams. Ottmann is also the editor-in-chief of Spring Publications Inc., which focuses on publishing works on psychology, philosophy, religion, mythology, and art.
Aside from these publications, Ottmann is a regular contributor of Flash Art, Arts, Domus, Art on Paper, Art Press, Sculpture and Artnews. Ottmann has also written extensively on art and aesthetics for the Museum of American Art, New York, IVAM, Valencia, Kunstmuseum, Bonn, Museum Serraives, Porto, and many others.
In 2006, Ottmann curated the most comprehensive survey of James Lee Byars’ work ever shown in the USA. Ottman also curated the critically acclaimed 6th Site Santa Fe Biennial, entitled Still Points of the Turning World. Aside from the particular works displayed, the exhibition was a thinly veiled criticism of traditional curatorial practices. Ottmann reduced the exhibition to 13 one-person installations without a specific curatorial theme. During an interview regarding the daring exhibition, Ottmann explained the absence of an overarching theme as a response to Museums having “gone a little bit too far in didactics these days”, claiming that he “wanted to create an environment where the art could speak for itself as much as possible… I thought that if you have the works without a theme, there’s less filtering going on and there’s more of a chance for the viewer to see the works on their own terms”. Ottmann also makes the important point that over-curation gives the false impression that art can be completely understood, by being reduced to some combination of hermeneutics, biography and technique, he claimed that: “Art education is, of course, important, but its important not to give people the illusion that they could understand a work of art, because works of art can never be completely understood.”
The reduction of the exhibition to a mere thirteen works was another criticism of traditional practices. Questioned on this decision, Ottmann replied that: “[museums] also force you to go from work to work to work, and it would be better for people to understand that its not about quantity, its about quality. When you go on a Sunday to the Met, and you see hundreds of people moving from one work to the next, yes, you see a great show, you see 300 paintings, but what did you actually remember afterwards?” Ottmann’s imperative should remind us of Francis Bacon, who would skim through an exhibition before devoting himself to a single piece, before which he would sit for hours on end. Reducing the number of works, Ottmann believes, may force people to “stop and think… and that will make them, perhaps, look a little differently.” The exhibition also included several performance art pieces; in an attempt to acknowledge the recent resurgence of ephemeral art mediums, and more importantly, the fundamental relationship between art, aesthetics, thought itself, and time.