The sweet and bitter Etel Adnan arrives at the Guggenheim

In her 2011 article, Etel Adnan wrote: “We went to the moon… Planet Earth is old news.” “The price of love we are not willing to pay.” “It’s the house we get rid of. We definitely don’t like it.” Adnan’s fantasy of escaping from the gravity of this planet now resonates with an extra glimpse, but it’s also a lament for the violence we inflict on him and us, and the sadness of letting go of something so beautiful. It’s the pain of displacement that this artist and author was so familiar with.

Adnan, who was born in Lebanon in 1925, has lived most of her adult life outside the country of her birth: in Paris, where she studied philosophy. Decades in Sausalito, California, where she began painting at age 34; Paris again where She died this month. Adnan was dear to her writing, her fervent protests against the wars in Vietnam and Lebanon and French colonial rule in Algeria, a struggle in which she expressed her solidarity by giving up writing in French and declaring that she would begin “painting in Arabic.” The calmness of her bright and sensual paintings is a miracle given the violence that has colored so much of her experience with the world.

The art world likes to keep female artists waiting for recognition, and Adnan has received attention in her visual art especially of late, with a presentation at Documenta 13, In Kassel, Germany in 2012, when she was 86 years old. After that, galleries seemed eager to make up for lost time, as they frequently exhibited their work. Last, The new light meter A Guggenheim survey of Adnan’s drawings, tapestries, and accordion pamphlets of handwritten poetry interspersed with delicate gouache since the 1960s, arrives with bittersweet timing. But the phosphorous work did not abate.

Adnan’s paintings are remarkable for the amount of existential density that they manage to contain in a narrow field. (Most of them are no bigger than a magazine cover.) But in their formal economy there is a deeply focused vision, balanced between form and abstraction and wholly inclined towards neither. It vibrates between geometric shapes—a jumble of planes with earth colors, like the flat landscape seen above, a favorite of West Coast Abstract Expressionists like Richard Diebenkorn; And orbs in dense pigments – the floating sun and glowing orbs hanging in space or hovering over the horizon like benevolent deities. Adnan smeared her oils heavily and scraped them onto her canvas with a palette knife, leaving surfaces streaked as evidence of her craft. Her simple gestures could read childish, even crude, but they express a deep-voiced polyphonic cosmology.

Looking at Adnan’s paintings, which climb up the two lower Guggenheim rings, can lead to a fit of synesthesia. Discordant shapes blend harmoniously, as if cut from the saxophone in Untitled (1961/62), a small composition of interlocking rectangles set against a chalky white floor. The unstretched cloth flakes away from his back, as if rising. This spirituality is less in the biblical sense than in the natural world. Adnan’s paintings often depict the Mediterranean seen from Lebanon and later Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, which she painted, as Monet’s return to Rouen cathedral, in a seemingly endless permutations. (She referred to her as her best friend.) For Adnan, the mountain was immersed in her memory, and enjoying the awe of nature was also a way to express her inner life. These are romantic ideas, perhaps outdated but powerful nonetheless. “Some things are not meant to be obvious; ambiguity is their clarity,” Adnan said. “It has its own lighting.”

The New Light Scale includes many of Adnan’s textiles, which she began making in the 1960s, and are modernist expressions of Persian rugs that were a familiar presence during her childhood. They are very enthusiastic, and their greater range has allowed them to be more flexible with their forms, and some of them dance freely in a wide negative space. They are sensory collisions, the paint and the fibers imparting each other texture. But the more mystical works are the narrowest. Untitled (’80s), a canvas not much larger than a butter knife, contains half a dozen shades of blue: streaks of deep ultramarines, saline gray, cobalt, and indigo. It seems to have infinite depth, a rising mass of the sea that bends in the course of life.

Her later paintings do not indicate a lost power. In a series of three combined paintings, all from 2010, three bands of radiant colors create sky and sea with stunning clarity, and blazing sunshine even as it dips. In a moment that can feel wildly colorless, Adnan’s palettes are a balm, like slipping into a column of warm afternoon light.

A separate show for Guggenheim’s rotunda occupies the rest Wassily Kandinsky And while the tendency to find harmony in each of these individual artists’ work is largely a suggestion of proximity, there are echoes: in their multiplicity of forms, their richness, their convergence of geometry and nature, or, as Adnan puts it, “the pins of Russian grandmothers and biochemical cultures fused In very personal portraits that move in a fluid made of color.”

More substantial rope provided by the curators, is an excerpt from a comment Adnan wrote about the 1963 Guggenheim Exhibition at Kandinsky, which she saw during her first trip to New York. Now as then, from the 1926 exhibits by Kandinsky”several circles, “An elegant world of transparent discs rotating in black space. For artists, the circle was an iconic symbol. When viewed together, Adnan’s shapes begin to appear like Kandinsky’s distilled image in their basic state. Even if this is a stretch, the ability to stand against ‘circles Multiple” as Adnan did nearly 60 years ago, and knowing what she did next, affects.

Adnan was painting her mountain late last year, heavily stripped into lozenges in light creamy peach, roses, and rusty gold. These places are real but cannot be visited, because they were only present in Adnan’s mind, but her paintings offer a portal at the same time, and a possibility to another world.


Etel Adnan: the new light meter

Until January 10, 2022 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-423 3500; guggenheim.org.

Wassily Kandinsky: around the circle

Until September 5, 2022

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