With a New Series at White Cube, Etel Adnan Reflects on the Origins of Her Art

If you’ve been treading a path around the cross-continental gallery and museum show circuit over the past two years, you’ve likely laid eyes on the bright, lucid paintings of Etel Adnan, the Lebanese poet, painter, philosopher, and octogenarian whose compositions have struck a chord with curators, critics, and viewers alike. Since showing at dOCUMENTA(13) in 2012, Adnan’s small, intense landscapes—near-abstract or entirely so—have turned up on the walls at the Whitney Biennial, the New Museum’s Middle Eastern survey “Here and Elsewhere,” the Wattis Institute’s solo show “Words and Places: Etel Adnan,” and now at White Cube’s Bermondsey space in London, in her first show at the gallery

Adnan has long been known for her writing; her novel Sitt Marie Rose (1977), a war-literature classic that won her the France-Pays Arabe award in Paris, addresses the brutalities of the Lebanese Civil War, and her widely acclaimed book of poems, The Arab Apocalypse, delves into the same charged subject matter. She has also written for opera, theater, and documentary films, exploring themes of exile and identity, and is a seasoned philosopher, having completed stints as a student of the subject at the Sorbonne, Berkeley, and Harvard. Adnan’s poetry arose out of a spirit of dissidence, when she participated in the poets’ movement against the war in Vietnam in the ’70s, and her oil and watercolor landscapes and accordion-fold books or leporellos—containing text, marks, and symbols—have a quality of quiet resistance, steadfast vision, and emotional clarity. 

Places, particularly land masses, play the muse for Adnan, and she has repeatedly returned to the same subject matter, most notably Mount Tamalpais in the Bay Area, whose stoic form she recreates in vivid compositions that are at once full and spare. Sky, sun, mountain, and horizon line—applied in a faded salmon pink against aquamarine, or saffron against cream, for instance—are often the minimal elements of Adnan’s simple, but incredibly nuanced repertoire. Frequently working from memory and rendering her material with a palette knife in thick, precise swathes, Adnan invokes experiences of place that are deeply invested with the artist’s psychology. As Adnan’s series of new, untitled landscapes goes on view at White Cube, we caught up with the artist to talk about place, language, and the origins of her art.  

Artsy: How did your writing and painting practices first emerge? Did they emerge simultaneously?

Etel Adnan: My writing and my painting started totally independently. I studied literature and philosophy at three different universities, and never went to art school. When I was teaching in a small college in California, in 1959 exactly, the head of the art department encouraged me to paint, as I was teaching Philosophy of Art (among other courses), and she said, “How can one teach about art without practicing it?” In a short while after I drew on small pieces of paper, then painting on small pieces of linden practically picked up from the floor, she decided that I was a painter. The two practices have remained independent, although on leporellos I write poems that I mix with inks and watercolors, but when I do it I still function as a painter.

Artsy: You once said, “When you write, you say things that would not have occurred to your mind otherwise.” Is the same true of your painting? Does the image emerge only as you put palette and paint to paper?

EA: Yes, I think that when one writes one says things that one wouldn’t have said in words. The act of writing does something to one’s mind. It’s like entering a new world, with its connections, its memories…Even if one thinks the same things they are said differently, but it goes deeper. When you write you’re almost a different person. Painting is altogether a different story. When you paint you belong to art, to whatever you know about its history, its world. These things are mysteries. When I start a painting, I really don't know where I’m going. The painting gets to be built one touch at a time. I never draw it to start with, never really know where I am going. Of course when I paint Mount Tamalpais, which I did for years, there’s some triangular shape in my mind, but that’s not the issue. I don’t paint a picture, but a state of mind in relation to that particular mountain, be it present in front of my eyes, or in my memory.

Artsy: You have lived in Beirut, California, and Paris—do you feel rooted in all these places, or how do you relate to the places you have spent time in?

EA: Places. Places. I am particularly sensitive to places, to wherever I am. Places act on us like the quality of the water affects fish. Places are part of nature, of the bigger picture. We are interrelated. When we contemplate them in their own right, they can sometimes change our lives, they can become spiritual experiences. In my case, they become part of the poetry I write, or, certainly, my painting.

But not in detectable ways. Anyway, the places we lived in, and that we continue to live in, are profoundly part of our identity.

Artsy: You have painted Mount Tamalpais numerous times. What is it about this mountain, in particular, that absorbs you?

EA: Mount Tamalpais, in the north of San Francisco, has been something like the pole of my life, for half a century now. But I don’t paint it exclusively. Some of my works are purely abstract, some make one think of nature without showing a landscape, some are related to that part of California where I spent most of my life. There is more to a painting than what the painter thinks she or he is doing, and more than what a viewer will see. It’s endless, that’s what makes it what we call art.

Artsy: It’s interesting that you, a lover of written language, have left your landscapes untitled. Why did you choose to leave them nameless? 

EA: Why are my paintings nameless? I don’t really know why. There’s an innocence to a painting that we don’t want to touch with words, I think. That may be why.

Tess Thackara

Etel Adnan” is on view at White Cube October 8th–November 16th, 2014.  

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