Sotheby's is delighted to offer the second part from a Private Collection of rare and unique works by Etel Adnan. With delicate and luminous colours strikingly reminiscent of the Californian landscapes, the present works from the 1960s and 1990s painted by Etel Adnan during her time in the Bay area, whose hues and topography wove their way into her work. The painting is accompanied by three lovely works on paper; Untitled and Untitled (Abstract with Red Square), Yellow, Red, Blue and Green Tree and Untitled (Egyptian Symbol). The selection of works offered were lovingly given by Adnan to a close friend across decades, attesting to the long-standing relationship between the artist and the present owner.
Adnan is renowned for her writing which spans political texts, such as Sitt Marie Rose from 1977, and her collection of poems, Moonshots from 1966. These experimental texts, full of vivid imagery connect closely with her exquisite paintings which brim with energy. Often understood as a translation of her own perception of reality, Adnan’s canvasses reveal a remarkable ability to synthesise the world around her into refined interpretations, making her a truly fascinating artist. In Untitled, dazzling rectangular shapes in vibrant coral reds are surrounded by warm hues such as tangerine orange, rich burgundy and intense mustard yellows and blue. These saturated colours, generously dosed with a palette knife, are set in stark contrast against swaths black and an olive green wood base. The composition might remind the viewer of a landscape, from which Adnan indeed drew much inspiration.
The landscape in the Bay area features prominently in Adnan’s works, particularly Mount Tamalpais on the outskirts of Sausalito where she moved in the 1970s. This she described to Hans Ulricht Obrist as “[her] house… It was an absolute. It was a painting”, (Etel Adnan. Stories. Maharam, online). Indeed, one can imagine the outline of a mountain in Untitled and see tangible influences of the waterside area in Journey to the East where a sailboat emerges from a tumbling sea of bright blues, greens, oranges and yellows.
Like many other female artists before her, Adnan did not receive the institutional support she deserved until later in her career. Her retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London and her recent exhibition of new work at SFMOMA in San Francisco have brought her work to international acclaim, highlighting her deep understanding of colour and poetic use of line, creating delicate compositions such as Untitled and Untitled (Abstract with Red Square), Yellow, Red, Blue and Green Tree and Egyptian Symbol.
Where did you meet Etel, how was your first encounter? How do you remember her?
I met Etel on the campus of the university of California at Berkeley where we were students. We had a bond. She was gentle, pensive and kind, and always thinking and absorbed; busy with her thoughts and observations and political problems around the world. Any encounter with her was enlightening.
When you studied together, Etel was already writing, something that has informed her work since the 1950s. Can you tell us more about her written work, and how your relationship was kept alive through time through the exchange of postcards and letters?
We kept in touch through visits, phone calls and letters. I saved 47 of her letters which were often accompanied by her drawings and watercolours or cards from her visits to museums. Her handwriting is so beautiful and fluid and her letters are as insightful and powerful as her books, filled with observations grounded in her education, her knowledge, her values and her philosophy of life. Each letter was more interesting that the last.
In one letter she wrote, “I dream of travels, of flights. I catch myself envying birds, and drawing boats under the moonlight.” Who can help but love such a person and get transported into her world?
When Etel gave these beautiful works to you, what was the context?
We exchanged gifts over the years. She is a generous soul. She once offered me money so I could follow her to Harvard. When I declined she said “If you cannot receive, you cannot give”. She sent me her books as she published them, starting with Moonshots in 1966. She also shared with me works of art by her friends, including Michel Basbous, Wissa Wassef and Robert Del Tredici.
You mentioned that some of these paintings reflect Etel’s time in California. How do you feel that this experience affected her work?
Her admiration of the natural world was translated into her work. From Beirut in 1972 she wrote to me “America gave me a sense of nature.” While we were students in California I shared an apartment with her. She loved to look through the large window of the living room which overlooked San Franscisco Bay. When I suggested an activity, she would say “Oh, but the window!”. She did not want to leave it. Even now, we still tease about it.
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