Light’s New Measure
Etel Adnan’s first museum exhibition in New York is a survey with three conditions: 1. The Guggenheim describes it as an “introduction” to Adnan, although it usually reserves its vast rotunda for comprehensive retrospectives. 2. Despite nearly 70 years of art-making, Adnan is only given two floors, whereas Vasily Kandinsky is given the three directly above her. 3. Adnan is one of three artists who will cycle through the space while “Kandinsky: Around the Circle” is on view; all three are women whose exhibitions are intended to proselytize the great Russian painter.
Still, “Light’s New Measure,” curated by Katherine Brinson and Lauren Hinkson, is a major survey dedicated to the Lebanese polymath Etel Adnan, and that alone is cause for celebration.
Adnan was well established as a writer when she took up painting while teaching philosophy in California in the 1950s. Protesting French colonialism in Algeria, she abandoned writing in French, she said, to make art in Arabic. Working in oil, she squeezes paint directly from the tube and shapes it with a palette knife. Red squares and yellow suns serve as focal points for most of her paintings. Broad swathes of pigment suggest verdant valleys or seas of cerulean blue. Even in abstraction, colors and shapes cohere, seemingly without reason, into natural forms. In one magnificent 2015 painting, a crepuscular purple radiates against pensive shades of teal, yellow and orange—after a moment, the colors lock into place: It’s twilight seen from an outcrop over the ocean. Somehow both subdued and exuberant, the painting transcends its minor-key palette to break into an exalted state, as if evoking a ballad sung by the Egyptian contralto Umm Kulthum, whom Adnan adores.
Mount Tamalpais, visible from her home in Sausalito, California, was one of Adnan’s earliest subjects, and it remains a constant in her work even today. It retains an element of the universal; Mount Tamalpais could just as well be Mount Sannine outside Beirut. The sun that sinks into the Pacific Ocean, as seen from Sausalito, is the same sun that sinks into the Mediterranean Sea, as seen from mashriq, meaning “place of sunrise,” as Adnan preferred to call the Middle East. For Adnan, the Guggenheim explains, a horizon functions as “marker of human mortality, as the sun rises and sets in an eternal cycle of beginning and endings.”
Adnan’s expression of the mutability and essential sameness of the landscape is, in part, a condition of diaspora and exile. After leaving Beirut to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, Adnan returned to live in her home city for only three more years beginning in 1972. She worked there as a journalist for two French-language newspapers until Lebanon’s 15-year civil war forced her to emigrate to Northern California, in Marin County. In 1977 she published Sitt Marie-Rose, one of the most significant works of war literature. In it, the titular Marie-Rose, a woman of Syrian descent who “bears the name of both the Virgin and her symbol,” declares her solidarity with Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims. As a result, she’s kidnapped by her former lover, Mounir, a Christian militant who considers the Lebanese more European than Asian and once dreamed of making a New Wave movie set in Beirut. The novel is infused with a synesthetic quality. Scenes from Mounir’s film capture the city “like a huge game of colored blocks consumed by the sun. … Then, among all these volumes of pale translucid colors, no foreign form, neither tree nor open spaces, comes to break the rhythm. These volumes form a gigantic pile of building blocks, which gives me, each time I see it, a sensation of almost mystic terror, like a feeling I had one dawn in the indian pueblo at Taos.” Later, as Marie-Rose contemplates execution, she thinks, “I want to say forever and ever that the sea is beautiful, even more so since the blood washed down by the greedy rain opened reddening roads into the sea. It’s only in it, in its immemorial blue, that the blood of all is finally mixed.”
One persistent misconception about Adnan’s career is that her visual practice should be considered as independent from her written work. The Guggenheim’s survey, on which Adnan advised from Paris, challenges this specious division. For one, Adnan writes like a painter. Her description of Beirut recalls Rainer Maria Rilke’s description of Paul Cézanne, whom Adnan studied: “No one before Cézanne ever demonstrated so clearly the extent to which painting is something that takes place among the colors, and how one has to leave them completely alone, so that they can come to terms among themselves.” For another, the Guggenheim includes several leporellos—small folding books of poetry that Adnan illustrated in ink, watercolor and gouache. In one, titled Late Afternoon Poem (1968), Adnan appends vast pastel washes to a poem about the American war in Vietnam: “Why is a newsman caught in a / crossfire / while reporting something / he does not care / to know? — Why is spring planted as / a flower / in a helmet or under a car / on the highway? — Why is a solar ray burning / my eye when / the sky still lies / in ice?”
The simple fact is Etel Adnan’s writings and paintings are inextricably linked: They’re linked, of course, through Etel Adnan. One cannot write about war and injustice with such a sagacious view of human mortality without also possessing the faith she demonstrates to nature in her art. There, in that intermediary space—not in pure image and not in pure language—the artist shrugs off all models. —Will Fenstermaker
Etel Adnan, Untitled, 1985. Oil on canvas, 30 × 29 inches. Private collection. © Etel Adnan.