etel adnan: a brief introduction

Etel Adnan (February 1925 – 14 November 2021) was a Lebanese-American visual artist, poet and essayist.  Her visual artwork were undertaken in a variety of media, including oil paintings, films and tapestries. For the purpose of this entry, I’m focusing on her work as a painter.

As the Guggenheim Museum notes in its curatorial statement on her 2021 exhibition:

While Adnan’s writings are unflinching in their critique of war and social injustice, her visual art is an intensely personal distillation of her faith in the human spirit and the beauty of the natural world. She once stated, “It seems to me I write what I see, paint what I am.” Adnan created her paintings decisively and intuitively. Seated at her desk with her small canvases laid flat, she would apply pigments directly from the tube, using a palette knife to render compositions of radiant immediacy. Simple geometries recur throughout her work: a red square anchoring abstract forms, a bright circle for the sun, horizontal bands that suggest the sky over the ocean. Her abiding subject of Mount Tamalpais—the view seen from her home during decades spent living in Sausalito, California—is evoked in innumerable guises, shifting with the light and weather, and continually dancing between figuration and abstraction. Despite their modest scale and formal economy, her paintings and drawings are potent visualizations of the sensations of memory and momentary perception that shape our inner lives. Adnan’s partner, the artist Simone Fattal, has described her works as playing “the role the old icons used to play for people who believed. They exude energy and give energy. They shield you like talismans. They help you live your everyday life.”

In my experience, I find Adnan’s works to be deceptive in their simplicity. Or to say it more directly, there’s incredible complexity within paintings that have distilled and abstracted the landscape to basic shapes and geometries. They feel elemental to me — the way good landscapes should — but also operate the way color field paintings draw me into my own experience of perception. The oversaturated part of my brain want to look at and away from these paintings quickly, but the curious part begs me to stay engaged and learn more.

Image from show at Van Gogh Museum

Etel Adnan on lightning-strike paintings and words as gestures

From the Serpentine Gallery.

For Etel Adnan, a show in Turkey is a symbolic homecoming from Apollo Magazine

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