Over the course of a lifetime that spans almost a century, Etel Adnan’s creative and intellectual vision has taken many forms. In addition to being a visual artist, she is a renowned poet, a prominent journalist, and the author of one of the defining novels of the modern Arab world. Adnan’s biography is notable for its rich convergence of cultural influences.
She was born in Beirut in 1925 to a Greek mother and Syrian father; grew up speaking French, Arabic, and Greek; and as an adult has lived for extended periods in Lebanon, the United States, and France. She began to paint in the late 1950s, while working as a professor of philosophy in Northern California. It was a period when, in protest of France’s colonial rule in Algeria, she renounced writing in French and declared that she would begin “painting in Arabic.”
While Adnan’s writings have been 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 has stated, “It seems to me I write what I see, paint what I am.” Adnan creates her paintings decisively and intuitively. Seated at her desk with her small canvases laid flat, she applies 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.”
Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure is organized by Katherine Brinson, Daskalopoulos Curator, Contemporary Art, and Lauren Hinkson, Associate Curator, Collections.