Etel Adnan, Sans titre, 2012, huile sur toile. Courtesy collection privée Andrée Sfeir-Semler, Hambourg
The AWI has chosen to mount a solo exhibition to explore the many aspects of the work of the Lebanese-American artist Etel Adnan, whose work straddles the boundary between text and image.
Etel Adnan, Sans titre, 2014, oil on canvas © Etel Adnan – Courtesy Galerie Lelong
Etel Adnan, Sans titre, 2012, oil on canvas. Courtesy collection privée Andrée Sfeir-Semler, Hambourg
Born in Beirut in 1925 to a Greek mother and Syrian father, Etel Adnan spent all of her childhood in a cosmopolitan environment, dividing her time between Lebanon, the United States and Europe1. She initially chose philosophy as her preferred direction, first studying2 and then teaching the subject, in California, from 1958 to 1972, then, as from the mid-1950s, she took up both writing and painting.
Recognised from the early 1970s for her work as a poet and politically committed writer3, she is viewed today as a major figure of contemporary art. However, her painting only gained serious attention in 2012 when it was exhibited at dOCUMENTA (13).
As is clear in the exhibition, Adnan’s painting is made up of small landscapes composed of highly simplified forms that border on abstraction, and large flat, brightly coloured tints applied with a spatula or palette knife. Although the human figure is never included in her works, Adnan emphasises that “These mountains and seas are [our] other face, the one that is more durable and constant”.
Etel Adnan, Voyage au Mont Tamalpaïs, 2008, watercolour and ink on paper © Etel Adnan – Courtesy Galerie Claude Lemand, Paris
Etel Adnan, Paris roofs Jim’s window n°2, 1977, charcoal on paper © Etel Adnan – Courtesy Galerie Claude Lemand, Paris
Adnan also paints the different landscapes she sees during her travels and around the places she lives – New York, Beirut, San Francisco and Paris – on “leporellos” (concertina books) that unfold to create a long frieze. Occasionally mixing abstract and written forms, watercolours and ink in this original format, she succeeds in freeing both text and image from their customary confinement.
The exhibition puts the spotlight on Adnan’s powerful body of work in which literary creation and pictorial practice are made indissociable. The writing is to be considered a different formulation of the essence of her painting and drawings and vice versa. In the work of this artist-poet, these two methods of expression are very much the fruit of a single artistic language.
At the Arab World Institute, Paris, 18 October 2016 to 1 January 2017.