F ew narrative arcs fit Etel Adnan’s life and career. Beirut-born, educated in France and the US, poet and painter, publisher and draughtswoman, California hippie and Paris sophisticate – Adnan drops in and out of various art currents of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is difficult to place where and what her legacy is: her artwork, in its continued negotiation between abstraction and landscape painting, feels rooted in a formal modernism that is largely bracketed by the end of the 20th century.
But the subject matter, of sensitivity towards animal and plant life forms, its privileging of philosophy and passion over rote documentation, made her work a touchstone in a moment marked by ecological fragility, hubris at simply being human, and a rejection of quantifiable economic growth over emotional sympathy. Her paintings have appeared in numerous major venues late in her career – documenta in 2012, the Whitney Biennial in 2014, the Sharjah Biennial in 2015, and the Guggenheim in 2022, in an exhibition juxtaposing her work with that of Kandinsky. And excerpts of her poetry, in a way that should be taken seriously, circulate widely on Instagram, where it has become a popular mode of affective disruption, a mode of valuing symbolism and passion amidst an art discourse that excludes it.
Adnan’s background, as an artist born in Lebanon, also forms part of her public identity, but again in a mode that refuses straightforward adoption. For Mandy Merzaban, a curator who specialises in art of the Middle East, Adnan’s prolific and incisive commentary has shifted the way she is thought about curatorially – on the one hand, allowing curators to have a reliable route towards her thinking, but also allowing her to regain control of her own narrative.
“Adnan’s writing is a critical repository of curatorial interest,” says Merzaban. “The fact that she was a prolific writer in many forms, and in a few languages, means her thinking and ethos is not a mystery. This poetic abundance gives her particular kind of an agency that many other artists may not necessarily have so readily in terms of access, particularly those whose work has become open to Western interpretations and framing tendencies.”
Etel Adnan, Untitled
While she is often conceived of as a Middle Eastern artist, much of this sensibility of looking towards nature – and even the sheer luminosity of her artwork – is traceable to her time in California, where she lived from 1958 to 1972 while teaching philosophy in Marin County, and then again from 1977 to the 2000s. The Lebanese-Mexican-American curator Maymanah Farhat has recently explored, in the show “Converging Lines: Tracing the Artistic Lineage of the Arab Diaspora in the U.S.,” how artists of Middle Eastern origin tend to be claimed for their Arab identity, even when they’ve spent long periods in the US and have intersected significantly with art movements there.
"If you look at Etel’s Mount Tamalpais paintings, it’s 100% California. Her first experiments and painting were in California.."
“If you look at Etel’s Mount Tamalpais paintings, it’s 100% California,” says Farhat. “She’s part of a longer tradition of Bay Area artists who have been obsessed with this minor mountain. Her first experiments and painting were in California within the very small group of local Bay Area artists. But when she she had a show in San Francisco, at the Wattis Institute in 2013, it was all about her time in Beirut. And I thought, what a missed opportunity: she was in California for decades and contributed so much there. It took several years after that for SFMoMA to finally acknowledge her.”
Adnan painted Mount Tamalpais throughout the 1970s and 1980s, which she could see from her window in Sausalito. The untitled work offered by Sotheby’s presents the mountain on a brilliant sunny day, a sky of varying blues overlooking a shaded peak that descends into the tawny, yellow colours of the California landscape. As for other works, Adnan used a palette knife to move the segments of thick paint, building up the image of Mount Tamalpais purely through blocks of colour, in a mode that bears clear connection to her early explorations of abstraction.
Later, Adnan’s images of Mount Tamalpais will be discussed as a “memory”, an image that exists both in the present and in her recollection, but Adnan’s use of her surroundings as subject matter shows the near constant appreciation the artist must have had for the immediate world around her. The watercolour in this consignment was made by Adnan of a tree outside her home in Northern California, and hung on the wall of her home. The consignor, a close friend of Adnan’s, admired it, and Adnan gave it to her as a gift – saying it was the better of the two watercolours that were hanging in her home. In recollecting that period, she describes Adnan sketching from the rooftop of her house, making images of the boats in San Francisco Bay.
The sketchbook offered here, also from the 1980s, shows Adnan’s images of linden trees, which she made in Paris. She began making such leporellos in the 1960s – accordion-style sketchbooks inspired by the Japanese concertina-like books of folded paper into which she combined drawings with the written word.
Adnan’s writing took various forms, from poetry to philosophy. In the well-known prose poem from 1986, “Journey to Mount Tamalpais,” she approaches the mountain from a literary standpoint. (The work was published by the Post-Apollo Press, the imprint run by her partner Simone Fattal.) It begins by framing Tamalpais visually, describing its shape, its colours in the varying light, and the setting that it forms part of and dominates – but soon the mountain becomes both subject and object, something looked at by Adnan but also which looks back at her.
Mount Tamalpais becomes part of a web of vectors, of a fault line stretching down to Tierra del Fuego, buttressed by winds that come from Iraq and (like Adnan, of course) Greece - even embedded into the gridded lines of the San Francisco streets
Likewise, as the writing unfolds through time, Mount Tamalpais becomes part of a web of vectors, of a fault line stretching down to Tierra del Fuego, buttressed by winds that come from Iraq and (like Adnan, of course) Greece, and even embedded into the gridded lines of the San Francisco streets that are criss-crossed by buses and pedestrians daily. Adnan’s paintings show one instant of a view of Mount Tamalpais, but here her prose work allows its different significances to flit by, one after another, as it endlessly circles its subject, resisting all fixed points of interpretation.