Writer and artist Etel Adnan began painting in the early 1960s. Widely known for her poetry, novels and plays, she moves fluidly between the disciplines of writing and art and is a leading voice of contemporary Arab-American culture. A multi-linguist who has had a nomadic existence, Adnan makes work that traverses cultures and disciplines, drawing its inspiration from a deep engagement with the world. After studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, Adnan moved to America in 1955, where she attended U.C. Berkeley and Harvard, and then taught Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics at Dominican College in San Rafael, California. Settling in Sausalito, Adnan began to make paintings, a move that was prompted, in part, by her decision to stop writing in French following the Algerian War. Adnan has said that ‘colors exist for me as entities in themselves, as metaphysical beings, like the attributes of God exist as metaphysical entities’, and this idea continues to be a key characteristic of her work.
She paints in oil paint with the canvas laid on a table, using a palette knife to apply the paint in firm swipes across the surface. Her elemental colour field compositions exude an intense energy, recalling the block-like slabs of colour in the late French landscapes of Russian artist Nicolas de Staël or the paintings of Paul Klee. During her time in Sausalito, Adnan began to focus on the surrounding landscape, in particular, Mount Tamalpais which was visible from the windows of her home. Like Cézanne's relationship with Mont Sainte-Victorie, the mountain became an immutable reference point which she drew incessantly, capturing its ever changing moods and dynamic at different times of day, in all seasons. This series culminated with her 1986 book, Journey to Mount Tamalpais, a meditation on the relationship between nature and art.
Alongside painting, Adnan has continued to make leporellos, pocket-sized books that unfold to several metres long, like a scroll, and also tapestries which translate the vivid colours of her paintings into wool. The leporellos combine verbal and visual observation and are lavishly illustrated, filled with landscapes and transcriptions of Arab poetry by writers such as Mahmoud Darwish and Yusuf al-Khal as well as Adnan’s own writing.
Adnan’s recent work is painted from memory, featuring landscapes distilled into their definitive features: like after-images of an experience that remain particularly vivid. Horizon and sky are represented as square masses or triangular, pyramidal shapes in thick, undiluted colours. Floating circular shapes rendered in yellow, orange or green and bands of pure colour suggest sun, sea or sand, and recall the shadows and light of her childhood in Beirut or the landscapes of California. These works reflect Adnan’s idea of vision as ‘multidimensional and simultaneous’, a meeting place for many images, coalesced into one sensorial experience.
Etel Adnan was born in 1925 in Beirut and lives and works between Sausalito, California and Paris. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Paris, University of California, Berkeley and Harvard. From 1958-72, she taught philosophy at Dominican University of California, San Rafael, going on to work as a cultural editor for two daily newspapers in Beirut between 1972-76. Her novel about the Lebanese Civil War, Sitt Marie-Rose, was first published in 1977, winning the France-Pays Arabes Award, and has since been published in more than 10 languages. Her work was presented in the solo exhibitions San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2018); Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern (2018); lnstitut de Monde Arabe, Paris (2016) and was included in the Sharjah Biennial, United Arab Emirates (2015); the Whitney Biennial, New York (2014); and Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany (2013). Adnan has received numerous awards for her contribution to culture, including, in 2014, France's highest cultural honour, the Ordre de Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.