“Went to the moon … Planet earth is old news,” Etel Adnan writes in her 2011 essay “The Cost for Love We Are Not Willing to Pay.” “It’s the house we are discarding. We definitely don’t love her.” Adnan’s fantasy of escaping this planet’s gravity reverberates now with extra premonitory vision, but it’s also a lament of the violence we inflict upon it and ourselves, and the sadness of abandoning something so beautiful. It’s the ache of displacement, with which this artist and author was intimately familiar.
Adnan, who was born in Lebanon in 1925, lived much of her adult life outside the country of her birth: in Paris, where she studied philosophy; decades in Sausalito, Calif., where she began painting at age 34; Paris again, where she died this month. Adnan was cherished for her writing, impassioned protests of the wars in Vietnam and Lebanon and France’s colonial rule in Algeria, a struggle with which she expressed solidarity by renouncing writing in French and declaring that she would begin “painting in Arabic.” The tranquillity of her bright, sensuous paintings is miraculous considering the violence that colored much of her experience of the world.
The art world likes to make female artists wait for their recognition, and Adnan received attention for her visual art especially late, with a presentation at Documenta 13, in Kassel, Germany in 2012, when she was 86. After that, galleries seemed eager to make up for lost time, exhibiting her work frequently. The latest, “Light’s New Measure,” a survey at the Guggenheim of Adnan’s paintings, tapestries, and accordion booklets of handwritten poetry punctuated by washy gouaches since the 1960s, arrived with bittersweet timing. But the phosphorescence of her work is not dimmed.
Adnan’s paintings are remarkable for how much existential intensity they manage to contain in a tight field. (Most are no larger than a magazine cover.) But in their formal economy is a deeply concentrated vision, balanced between figuration and abstraction and never tipping over fully into either. They vibrate between geometric shapes — patchworks of planes in earthbound tones, like flattened landscapes seen overhead, a favorite vantage of West Coast Abstract Expressionists like Richard Diebenkorn; and celestial bodies in intense pigments — floating suns and glowing orbs suspended in space or hovering over a horizon like benevolent deities. Adnan applied her oils thickly and scraped them across her canvases with a palette knife, leaving the built-up surfaces like evidence of their own making. Her simple gestures can read as childlike, even crude, but they express a deeply felt, polyphonic cosmology.
Looking at Adnan’s paintings, which climb the Guggenheim’s lower two rings, can induce a bout of synesthesia. Discordant shapes meld harmoniously, as though bleated from a saxophone in “Untitled” (1961/62), a small composition of interlocking rectangles anchored by a chalk-white ground. The unstretched canvas peels away from its backing, as if levitating. This spirituality is less in the biblical sense than for the natural world. Adnan’s paintings frequently depict the Mediterranean Sea seen from Lebanon and later, Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, which she rendered, like Monet returning to the Rouen Cathedral, in seemingly endless permutations. (she referred to it as her best friend). For Adnan, the mountain was fused with her memory, and reveling in the awe of nature was also a way to express her inner life. These are romantic ideas, maybe outdated but potent nonetheless. “Some things are not meant to be clear; obscurity is their clarity,” Adnan has said. “It has its own illumination.”
“Light’s New Measure” includes several of Adnan’s tapestries, which she began making in the 1960s, modernist expressions of the Persian rugs that were a familiar presence during her childhood. They’re exuberantly fauvist, and their larger scale allowed her to be looser with her shapes, some of which dance freely in ample negative space. They’re sensory collisions, the paint and the fibers each lending the other texture. But the most mystical works are the tightest. “Untitled” (1980s), a canvas not much wider than a butter knife, contains a half dozen shades of blue: streaks of deep ultramarines, brackish gray-blues, cobalt, indigo. It appears to have limitless depth, a surging mass of sea that folds in a lifetime’s worth of looking.
Her later paintings evince no lost power. In a series of three compact paintings, all from 2010, three bands of radiant color create a sky and sea with startling lucidity, a low sun searing even as it dips. In a moment that can feel largely colorless, Adnan’s paintings are a balm, like slipping into a shaft of warm afternoon light.
The rest of the Guggenheim’s rotunda is occupied by a separate show of Vasily Kandinsky, and while the inclination to find harmony in each of these singular artist’s work is largely a suggestion of proximity, there are echoes: in the multiplicity of their forms, their lyricality, and their convergence of geometry and nature, or, as Adnan put it, “the lacework of Russian grandmothers and biochemical cultures fused into highly personal images that move about in a fluid made of color.”
The curators provide a more substantial tether, excerpting a review Adnan wrote of a 1963 Guggenheim exhibition of Kandinsky, which she saw during her first trip to New York. Now as then, on view is Kandinsky’s 1926 “Several Circles,” a neat cosmos of orbiting diaphanous discs floating in black space. For both artists, the circle was a numinous symbol. Seen together, Adnan’s forms begin to look like Kandinsky’s distilled into their most essential state. Even if this is a stretch, the ability to stand before “Several Circles” as Adnan did nearly 60 years ago, and see what she did after, is affecting.
Adnan was painting her mountain as late as last year, heavily abstracted into rhomboids in creamy pastel peaches, roses, and rusty golds. These places are real but can’t be visited, because they existed only in Adnan’s mind, but her paintings offer a portal all the same, the possibility of another world.
Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure
Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle
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