Over the course of a lifetime that spanned almost a century, Etel Adnan expressed her prodigious creative and intellectual vision in many forms. In addition to being a visual artist, she is a renowned poet, a prominent journalist, and the author of one of the defining novels of the modern Arab world. Adnan’s biography is notable for its rich convergence of cultural influences. She was born in Lebanon to a Greek mother and Syrian father; grew up speaking French, Arabic, and Greek; and as an adult lived for extended periods in Lebanon, the United States, and France. She began to paint in the late 1950s, while working as a professor of philosophy in Northern California. It was a period when, in protest of France’s colonial rule in Algeria, she renounced writing in French and declared that she would begin “painting in Arabic.”
This winter, the Guggenheim celebrates the late artist with an expansive exhibition of her work, centering in particular around her voluminous body of paintings. Created sitting at a desk with her small canvases laid flat, she would apply pigments directly from the tube, using a palette knife to render compositions of radiant immediacy. Flat planes of color and gentle hues made for striking interpretations of landscape, drawn often from her time gazing out her Sausalito, CA window to view Mount Tamalpais. Long considering herself a painter most intimately tied to the history and culture of California’s landscape and abstract painters, despite her international background and time spent living across a range of cities and nations, Adnan fills her canvases with a lush color and careful balance.
Simple geometries recur throughout her work: a red square anchoring abstract forms, a bright circle for the sun, horizontal bands that suggest the sky over the ocean. Despite their modest scale and formal economy, her paintings and drawings are potent visualizations of the sensations of memory and momentary perception that shape inner life. It’s a striking note, considering the history of the artist’s life, and the political realities of her work and experience, to see works that exude an almost confrontational calm and repose, as if the artist ‘s work speaks most loudly in its belief in peace.
The exhibition closes January 10th.
– D. Creahan
Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure [Exhibition Site]