At the entrance to Etel Adnan’s survey exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, “The Weight of the World,” were three large-scale tapestries from 2015 and 2016 depicting natural themes in joyful splashes of color—the sea at low tide, an autumn forest, and foliage perceived as, according to the work’s title, “springtime acrobatics.” Opposite hung a fourth tapestry, dated 2014; although the work is titled Feux d’Artifice (Fireworks), its black jagged gunlike marks and slivers of red between dominant grays and browns are more suggestive of violence than of celebration, and serve as a reminder of Adnan’s background growing up in the turmoil of twentieth-century Lebanon.
Nature and war thread like twin strands through the multifaceted practice of this artist, who is also a poet, writer, and activist. She was born in Beirut in 1925 to a Greek mother and a Syrian father, and while her vibrant visual output is largely inspired by nature, much of her writing addresses the brutal histories of her homeland and of other nations. The Serpentine exhibition focused on Adnan’s work from the 1960s to the present and spanned paintings, drawings, tapestries, ceramics, film, and leporelli (accordion-folded books) containing ink drawings and Arabic poems illustrated in watercolor.
In her painting, Adnan has moved from blocky oil compositions to recognizable mountain landscapes to, in recent decades, a synthesis of the two. Her jubilant use of color runs throughout the works and places her in a lineage of artists including Sonia Delaunay and Paul Klee. In her long-form essay Journey to Mount Tamalpais (1986), Adnan wrote: “Color is the sign of the existence of life. . . . I exist because I see colors.” While most of her early canvases appear abstract, their titles occasionally hint at locations that have inspired her. In Arizona (1964–65), strips of terra-cotta, ocher, white, and rust conjure the hues of the desert. Adnan’s move to Sausalito, California, in the 1970s marked the start of her long obsession with Mount Tamalpais, which she has compared to Cézanne’s relationship with Mont Sainte-Victoire. In her patchwork pyramids inspired by the mountain, one discerns the scenery at different times of day, from the verdant greens and yellows of noon to the pinks and indigos of dusk. The exhibition’s title series consists of twenty compact canvases, which were created for the Serpentine space and work together as a totality. Each features a large vivid circle resembling a cosmic body, such as a sun or a moon, floating above a band of color, a pyramid, or a circle that might denote sea, mountain, or earth.
Adnan’s film Motion (1980–89/2012) complemented her paintings. Shot on a Super 8 camera, it shows images of the sun as a blurry yellow disk, silhouetted triangles of mountains at night, fleeting reflections in the grid windows of a skyscraper, sunlight glinting on running water—the world distilled to sensations and movement. If Adnan’s paintings and film invite reflections on the cosmos, the eight ceramic tiles presented here do so even more explicitly. These studies for a monumental ceramic mural, Le Soleil Amoureux de la Lune (The Sun in Love with the Moon, 2014), reverberate with brightly colored crescents, disks, arrows, and zigzags in a primeval chaos recalling the later work of Wassily Kandinsky.
A central room in the show was given over to cityscapes—attractive ink drawings of New York and of the Italian town San Gimignano on foldout leporelli, which were echoed in panoramas of San Gimignano drawn in resin on large alabaster folding screens. It was the only room devoid of color, such a vital metaphysical force for Adnan, and felt in its restraint like a haiku amid the effusion of visual poetics. The contrast helped throw into relief the range of this ninety-one-year-old artist, who remains passionately alive to her surroundings.
Etel Adnan’s texts and pictures are about the metaphysical realms that neither language nor image can fully describe. “Words and Places,” Adnan’s first large-scale solo exhibition, brought together paintings, newspaper articles, leporellos (accordion-folded books) and video by the Lebanese-American poet, journalist and artist. Born in 1925 in Beirut to a Christian Greek mother and Muslim Syrian father, Adnan made Paris and the Bay Area her secondary homes for political and professional reasons.
Adnan’s vibrant paintings were a high point at Documenta last year, but in San Francisco, among other works, they are simply one facet of Adnan’s hybrid identity. Small and delicate, each object deserves careful, up-close observation. The arrangement in the warehouselike space worked well: petite, candy-colored canvases hung across from somber ink drawings with geometric shapes or poetry in dainty cursive, projections of articles and videos, and leporellos laid flat in vitrines.
Adnan seems to be engrossed in a quest to locate an adequate language—whether textual or visual—with which to communicate her rich internal life. Her devotion to pure expression and color has elicited comparisons to Paul Klee, and the two artists share an attention to sensory perception and its relation to the human condition. Adnan often finishes paintings in several hours, applying paint directly from the tube with a palette knife, yielding canvases that depict Mount Tamalpais in Marin County with polygonal bursts of saturated color. Part landscape, part impressionistic memory, the paintings could be of anything or any place.
The leporellos, which were displayed stretched out to their full length, reveal the range of Adnan’s inspirations. There are studies of inkpots, watery earth-colored streaks reminiscent of hilly landscapes, cartoonish flurries of black splotches and scratches, and entire illustrated poems, like “Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut” (1968). The politics of geography and colonial occupation come to the surface in some of the leporellos. Though Adnan speaks Arabic, her education eschewed reading and writing in Lebanon’s native tongue in favor of colonial French. As noted in the show’s catalogue, for one of her earliest leporellos, she copied Arabic poetry onto the paper without being able to decipher the letters. The words are transformed into beautiful symbols.
“Words and Places” was not really a solo exhibition; the curators, CCA’s graduating curatorial studies students, included videos by other artists that anchor Adnan’s life in her three native cities. One was by Chris Marker, of a junkyard in a Bay Area mudflat (Junkopia, 1981), another by Rabih Mroué, who reversed footage of the demolition of a house in Beirut, making it lurch from chaos into wholeness (Old House, 2006-11). There was also a 2012 video by the Otolith Group of Adnan reading her poem “I See Infinite Distance between Any Point and Another” in her Paris apartment.
One new entry point for English speakers was the first translation of articles written by Adnan in the early 1970s for Al-Safa, a Beirut-based francophone cultural newspaper. The articles reveal Adnan’s two voices. When discussing politics, she has a razor-sharp acuity and an acerbic wit; she reserves tenderness for fellow poets. In a 1972 article eulogizing the poet Youssef Ghossoub, Adnan writes: “All night long, I could not tear myself away from the quality of his silence. Wrapped in a waking dream, he was absolutely present, absolutely happy to be with his friends, and yet he said nothing. . . . I have witnessed this miraculous phenomenon when poetry reaches the fullest silence.”