For more than half a century, Etel Adnan, who has died aged 96, pursued dual vocations, writing novels, poems and essays that grappled with war and history, even as she made paintings, tapestries and ceramic sculptures that reflected her love of nature and the cosmos. “It seems to me I write what I see, paint what I am,” she once said.
Adnan, a Lebanese American who grew up in Beirut and spent decades in the Bay Area, was a celebrated author who found late-in-life fame as an artist. An exhibition of her work opened last month at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, showcasing what New York Times art critic Roberta Smith once described as her “stubbornly radiant abstractions”. Her paintings were small but evocative, filled with vivid depictions of the sun, sea and Mount Tamalpais, a rocky peak overlooking San Francisco.
“It’s so rare that you have someone making such important contributions to poetry and art,” Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, said in a 2015 interview with The Wall Street Journal. He called Adnan “one of the most influential artists of the 21st century,” adding: “Her work is the opposite of cynicism. It is pure oxygen in a world full of wars.”
Writing in French and English, Adnan published some two-dozen books, including poetry collections that referenced Rimbaud, Che Guevara, Native Americans, the Jebusite inhabitants of ancient Jerusalem and jazz musician Charles Mingus in their lyrical but politically charged verses. Her book-length poem “The Arab Apocalypse” (1980), which incorporated unusual markings and symbols in a blend of art and literature, comprised 59 sections, one for each day that a Palestinian refugee camp named Tel al-Zaatar was besieged during the Lebanese Civil War.
Adnan was perhaps best known as a writer for Sitt Marie Rose (1977), considered one of the finest novels about the war. She lived in Beirut at the onset of the conflict and wrote the book in a single frenetic month, inspired by newspaper accounts of the torture and execution of Marie Rose Boulos, who worked with Palestinian refugees and was killed by right-wing Christian militants. The book told the story of her kidnapping and death, examining the conflict from the perspective of civilians in general and women in particular.
“Beirut is humiliated,” wrote Adnan, addressing the war’s toll on her hometown. “She suffered the defeat; she’s the one who lost. She’s like a dog with her tail between her legs. She was heedless to the point of folly. She gathered the manners and customs, the flaws and vengeance, the guilt and debauchery of the whole world into her own belly. Now she has thrown it all up, and that vomit fills all her spaces.”
Adnan moved freely between writing and art, making accordionlike booklets known as leporellos that mixed her poetry and pictures. “Poetry,” she once said, “is the purpose of life” – and painting, in her view, was “a kind of poetry expressed visually”. She prized speed and spontaneity in both art forms, typically finishing her paintings in a single sitting, using a palette knife to apply dollops of pigment to a small canvas lying flat on her desk.
Like Monet painting haystacks or the Rouen Cathedral, she returned repeatedly to certain subjects, varying the perspective or colour palette. Many of her paintings showed the sun, or a mysterious planet, shining above bands of colour that suggested the ocean and horizon. Hundreds of others focused on Mount Tamalpais, which she could see from her home in Sausalito. Even after leaving California, she continued to paint the mountain, fascinated by its pyramidlike shape and deep green colours.
“It became her identity,” Fattal wrote in an essay about Adnan’s work. “She could draw it while in Lebanon, at night and at dawn; the mountain was for her the ever-revealing mystery, the on-going manifestation. I wonder whether in those days she loved someone as much as she loved Mount Tamalpais.”
Adnan was 87 when her work found a wide audience for the first time, at the Documenta 13 contemporary art exhibition. The curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, happened to see her paintings at a gallery in Beirut and invited Adnan to show some of her work at the 2012 version of Documenta, which is held every five years in Kassel, Germany.
Two years later, Adnan’s art was featured at the Whitney Biennial and in a show at the New Museum in New York. The recognition was gratifying, although Adnan said it was unnecessary. “I always had a few people who liked what I did,” she told the Journal, “and that was enough.”
Etel Adnan was born in Beirut on 24 February 1925. Her father, a Syrian Muslim, had commanded Ottoman troops as a senior army officer in the First World War; her mother, who was Greek Orthodox, was a homemaker. Their only daughter grew up speaking Greek and Turkish at home, Arabic on the street and French at Catholic schools.
“I got used to standing between situations, to being a bit marginal and still a native, to getting acquainted with notions of truth which were relative and changed like the hours of the days and the passing of the seasons,” she later said.
At age 16, she was taken out of school “with the pretext that being a girl I didn’t need further education”. She took odd jobs and won scholarships to pay for night school and appalled her mother when she announced that she wanted to become an architect. “You want a man’s job,” she said. “Shame on you!”
Adnan eventually turned to philosophy, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris and then at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University. She became a philosophy professor in 1958 at Dominican College (now a university) in San Rafael, California, and began painting the next year. A colleague in the art department had suggested that if she was going to teach a course about the philosophy of art, she should start making it herself.
“She gave me crayons and bits of paper, and I started doing little works, and she said I didn’t need any training, that I was a painter. So I kept going,” Adnan told The Paris Review.
In 1972, she returned to Beirut, where she worked as a culture editor and editorial writer for a French-language newspaper. She also met Fattal, a Syrian-born artist and publisher. They moved to Sausalito later that decade and settled in Paris in 2012 – although, given her frequent moves, Adnan said she never felt comfortable with the word “settled” and was more at home in her work than in any particular city. “The books I’m writing are houses that I build for myself,” she wrote.
Her recent volumes included Night, an aphoristic poetry collection that Times reviewer Benjamin Hollander called “an intricate thread of reflections on pain and beauty”, and Time, which was translated from the French by Sarah Riggs and received the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize in Canada.
Adnan offered advice to budding artists in one of her last interviews, telling the Times in June that “being an artist means you’ll always be a little insecure and a little unsure, because you don't know where you’re going a lot of the time – every act of creation is new.
“You may have feedback,” she continued, “and there are moments when people will give you reassurance, but you won’t have that always. But that’s true of life in general, and people make too big a fuss over the struggles of being an artist, as though an artist’s humanity is different from anyone else’s, as though we are a different kind of creature. It’s not. We are not. Keep going.”
Etel Adnan, poet and artist, born 24 February 1925, died 14 November 2021
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