When I ventured to the Guggenheim Museum in New York on Thursday, November 11, Veterans Day in the United States, to see “Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure,” a retrospective of the life work of artist, writer and philosopher Etel Adnan, I had not anticipated her passing four days later, on Sunday, November 14. Etel Adnan’s writings informed us of the atrocities of war. Her paintings celebrated the intense and joyful colors of California. Her 96 years of life were filled with ideas and artistic action.
A world traveler, Etal Adnan, born in Lebanon, educated in French schools, was first a philosopher, studying at the Sorbonne, with later postgraduate courses at the University of California, Berkeley and at Harvard, later teaching at Dominican College in San Rafael (now the Dominican University of California). She wrote wrenchingly beautiful books of literature and poetry. In protest of France’s colonial rule in Algeria in the late 1950s, while Adnan resided in California, she began “painting in Arabic,” turning her talents to paintings of Sausalito, especially Mt. Tamalpais. Ms. Adnan’s small paintings of Mt. Tamalpais exude brilliant sunshine and bright colors, reminding us of her California days, while her Leporellos, also known as Japanese accordion books, combine her colorful abstract marks with Arabic words and numbers. In 1972, Adnan returned to Beirut, where she met her partner, Simone Fattal, an artist with whom she moved to Paris in 1975, continuing to work there.
The Leporellos, tapestries and small abstract paintings on canvas, with brilliant colors applied from the tube with a palette knife, are in the exhibition, taking up an entire floor of the Guggenheim. The tapestries are particularly spare and beautiful including “Morning Mist,” 2019, tapestry (courtesy White Cube Gallery). “Untitled,” 1995-2000, oil on canvas (Collection of Peter M. Currie) exudes a simplified, geometric view of the beach, with the yellow sun overtaking the green of the sea and brown of the California sands. “Untitled, 1980s, oil on canvas (Collection of Gary and Tracy Mezzatesta), with its brilliant blues, reminds me why lapis blue was so precious and limited to only a few artists in centuries past. “Vignoble,” 2019, tapestry (Courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong), is a complicated and joyously colored riot of flowerlike shapes while the two Leporellos on view combine images of eyes with script, burning suns and abstract linear marks, reminiscent of trees. Truly depicting nature at its best, the show celebrates Adnan’s admiration and care for the natural world.
As well as the retrospective of her work currently at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Adnan’s work is presently at Galerie Lelong, New York and Paris; in a show currently at Sfeir Semmler Gallery, Beirut; with a Leporello illustrating two poems by Mahmoud Darwish at the Palestine Museum US in Ridgefield, Connecticut. With her work exhibited at Documenta 13 (Kassel, Germany) in 2012; the Whitney Biennial in 2014 and receiving France’s highest cultural honor, Chevalier de Art et des Lettres in 2014, Etal Adnan lived a rich and full life and left us with a trove of beautiful work with which to remember her.
(“Etal Adnan: Light’s New Measure” remains on view through January 10, 2022 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York. For more information, visit guggenheim.org.).