Etel Adnan is an American‐Lebanese painter and writer celebrated for her expressive, poetic visions of American and Middle Eastern landscapes. Born in 1925 in Beirut, she studied in France and settled in California in the 1960s, where she began to paint. Among the inspirations for her concise, intimate artworks are calligraphy, nature and spirituality. She has produced not only paintings but also tapestry designs and concertina‐fold books known as ‘leporellos’, which combine writing, drawing and watercolour painting. Adnan continues to produce her meditative artworks well into her 90s.
Etel Adnan is an American‐Lebanese painter and writer whose expressive, poetic landscapes offer intimate visions of both American and Middle Eastern scenes. Her knowledge of philosophy of art emerges in her body of work where vibrant stretches of colour become concise but deeply humane visions of hope.
Adnan was born in 1925 in Beirut, Lebanon into a multi‐cultural and multi‐lingual family. She studied philosophy in France as well as the United States where she started teaching philosophy of art in 1952. Adnan also worked as a poet, journalist and novelist, publishing her influential novel ‘Sitt Marie‐Rose’, a classic of war literature, in 1977.
It was in the 1960s that Adnan, settling in Sausalito, California, began to paint. Her need to explore art forms other than writing was prompted not only by her interest in visual language but also by her decision to stop writing in French, a way of politically distancing herself from the concurrent Algerian War. Adnan’s first works constitute an initial exploration of the intimate, metaphysical life of colours, which, for her, exist as entities in themselves.
Adnan’s art mimics the nomadic nature of her world, fluidly moving between disciplines and engaging with diverse elements of life. Notable inspirations include the exchanges between Arab and American cultures. In the 1960s she began assimilating Arabic calligraphy into her art, following the lead of ‘hurufiyya’, a group of traditional Islamic calligraphists. Such rejection of established Western aesthetics and the quest for original forms of expression reflected Adnan’s commitment to Eastern culture, media and techniques.
Adnan’s paintings are mature and ascetic, concise but meaningful. Her subjects seem to persistently return to the outside world, interpreted through a personal but insightful lens. While living in Sausalito, Adnan began to focus on the surrounding landscape, particularly the neighbouring Mount Tamalpais. The mountain, which she drew and painted incessantly, became a constant point of reference. These paintings record the landscape’s varying dynamics and moods over different periods of time, constituting meditations on the relationship between nature and art.
Always concerned with questions of personal memory and cultural heritage, Adnan created an important body of work on Lebanese landscapes. These landscapes are made of wide expanses of warm, elemental colours, bringing the point of view nearer to the subject and opening the canvas up through the thick paste of their palette. The granular texture of Adnan’s colours seems to reflect the tactile experience of interacting with nature, the earth and its substances.
Adnan also produces works known as accordion‐fold books or ‘leporellos’. These artworks, on which Adnan transcribes poems and sketches landscapes, combine her parallel practices of painting and writing. Like foldable screens, they can be extended into space, becoming autonomous art objects.
After having been largely overlooked by the mainstream art world, Adnan’s work is now featured in collections of major museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the British Museum in London. She has also become the subject of important exhibitions, including a retrospective at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2018.
Such international recognition demonstrates the success of Adnan’s quest for an intimate pictorial language. In between her relinquishment to lyricism and rigorous social engagement, Adnan’s art is ultimately dedicated to life and transformation.
Inspired by the mountain towering over Sausalito, the Californian town she elected as her home, since the 1960s Etel Adnan has produced an extensive series of paintings portraying Mount Tamalpais. Her fascination for this subject manifested not only in her paintings and illustrations but also in her book of essays, ‘Journey to Mount Tamalpais’ (1986).
The paintings of this series, essentially abstracted landscapes, explore themes that are close to Adnan’s artistic research, such as the relationship between human and nature, the impermanence of things and the spiritual quality of vision and perception. The imposing presence of Mt Tamalpais suggested to Adnan these thoughts, generating what she defined as a ‘feeling of latent prophesy’. Natural landscape thus became her muse, and the mountain, transformed by her penetrating gaze, is represented as both a symbolic entity and an object of reverence.
The ‘Mt Tamalpais’ canvases are often of reduced size, composed of highly simplified forms made of bright colours applied with spatulas or palette knives. While always recognisable, forms can become abstract, embodying metaphorical meanings as well as representational ones. The human figure is never present in these paintings, as Adnan strives to break free from the philosophical constraints of anthropocentrism and self-involvement. Her continued portrayal of the mountain is an effort to humble viewers, emphasising the inherent connections between humans and nature.
‘Mt Tamalpais’, however, is also to be understood as a metaphorical representation of humankind, as, just like humans, they embody the same multiplicity of potentials and possibilities. For Adnan, there is no clear divide between the two: ‘these mountains and seas are [our] other face’, she has claimed, ‘the one that is more durable and constant’.
Etel Adnan rose to fame with her ‘Leporellos’, book formats composed of folded concertina-type pages. Since the 1970s, she has produced multi-media books that include drawing, poetry and painting. In her books, poems often have a political or social message, which she associates with her own writing as well as abstract sketches and watercolours.
In 1964, Adnan discovered these books, originally of Japanese origin, and she was immediately fascinated by them. ‘When I saw that format I thought it was a good way to get out of the page as a square or rectangle; it was like writing a river’, she stated.
Adnan has employed these objects to explore her multicultural heritage in which western and Eastern influences combine. She disseminated words, signs and symbols over the length of her ‘Leporellos’ pages, often combining Arab and English graphemes. It was the expanded space of these books that particularly fascinated Adnan. A constantly mobile space which could include a multiplicity of potentials constituted a contradiction to the symbols associated with the notebook, which, when closed, becomes a metaphor of stillness. This inconsistency embodied the aesthetic nomadism that has come to encompass Adnan’s practice.
The ‘Leporellos’ suggest additional meanings considering the Arab context, where writing and drawing often merge. Conscious of this heritage, Adnan converted her concertinaed pages into a transformative art medium, resonant of diverse forms and aesthetics. Her ‘Leporellos’ are at the same time ancient miniature books, visual art objects and paper films, as moving through the pages produces the effect of motion. These books constitute an essential step in Adnan’s attempt to transform bodily, intellectual and universal movement into art.
Over her practice, Etel Adnan has produced a large number of untitled, abstract paintings, which reflect, in her own words, her ‘immense love for the world, the happiness to just be, for nature, and the forces that shape a landscape’. These works are inspired by Adnan’s itinerant life, spent between Lebanon, Europe and the United States. Generally composed of bright, energetic blocks of colours, these paintings are produced with oil paints spread on flat canvases, as tints are applied with spatulas and palette knives in forceful swipes.
Adnan’s energetic, elemental colours tend to coalesce into geometric shapes, which have often been interpreted as references to natural landscapes. The triangular motif that frequently appears in her canvases is believed to represent Mount Tamalpais, one of the painter’s favoured subjects. In these paintings, however, the triangular shape is integrated with others, such as squares, rectangles and circles. These simplified terms seem to depict landscapes, seascapes and cities as a multiplicity, as if she captured those places in different states. These fragmented visions then become not representational but resemblances of the space of memory, of sensations.
For Adnan, abstract art is the equivalent of poetic expression. Words can be conveyed through colours, lines and forms. Through these elements, it is possible for her to communicate simultaneously many meanings, to move in different directions. The chromatic and formal tensions of her abstract paintings reflect her mental world and the spiritual connotations of perception.
These paintings also reflect Adnan’s philosophy training, as their poetic qualities offer a sensory experience mediated by their rhythmic distribution of forms and the radiating warmth of their palettes. Replicating the geographies of her nomadic past, these intimate canvases are visual translations of feelings, emotions and longings.
In recent years, Etel Adnan has translated her precise, systematic painterly technique and her explosive colours into designs for hand-woven tapestries. Her fascination for his medium stems from her childhood years spent in Beirut. ‘There was no art museum in Beirut, there were no paintings at home’ she recalls. ‘We had rugs, and the aesthetic pleasure came out of those’.
While her tapestries are inspired by memories of her childhood as well as artworks produced in other media, Adnan’s active interest in weaving was sparked in the 1960s, when she was travelling through Egypt. Here, she met the Egyptian architect Ramses Wissa Wassef, whose weaving workshops were influential in the regeneration and dissemination of this craft. He encouraged young artists, Adnan included, to create textiles following improvisation, chance and sensory inspirations. Her designs convey a childlike abandonment to bright colours and abstract, dynamic compositions. This passion emerged again in the 2010s when Adnan, now a worldwide phenomenon of the art world, had the economic possibility to produce high quality renditions of her tapestry designs.
Adnan’s tapestries are the conjunction of her interest in the traditional culture, media and techniques of Arab and American crafts. These designs display fierce, joyful bursts of warm colours, often inspired by sketches made for other artworks. Perhaps for this reason, they tend to include elements traditionally extraneous to the weaving craft, such as scribbles, graphic lines and unruly blots of colour. As in her paintings, her compositions are free from the restrictions of language and allow her to express herself in a suggestively poetic form.
Etel Adnan’s continued interest in cosmology manifests not only in her poetry but also in her painterly practice, in which she investigates the relationships of planets and stars to each other and to the Earth. This fascination was sparked during the 1960s, when she followed America’s first steps in space exploration and when, honouring the passing of the first man in space, she wrote an elegy for the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
From Adnan’s 2016 and ’17 retrospectives ‘The Weight of the World’ and ‘The Weight of the Moon’ emerged her series titled ‘Planets’, which constitutes an important development in her art. In these works, she applied paint directly from the tube, creating neat juxtapositions of vibrant colours and seamless geometric circles of varying size, which signify planets. Earth, in these works, is exemplified by familiar elements borrowed from everyday life, such as trees, boats or bicycles. Adnan combines, in these paintings, a sense of normality with one of cosmic mystery and infinity. The simplicity of these paintings mesmerises viewers through their disarming balance and tasteful hues.
Across her oeuvre, Adnan strives to create warm canvases that convey intangible, emotive feelings rather than conclusive representations. Understanding, for her, does not happen through language but through sensation, and art can constitute a bridge between knowledge and feeling. ‘The meaning is communicated by lines and shapes, but there is more, and we don’t understand this “more” 100%’, she comments. ‘But we feel it, and we should just accept that’.
Functioning somewhat like religious icons, her small-scale paintings have been compared to talismans that can support individuals in everyday life. Intimate and conversational, they provide uniquely warm, touching aesthetic experiences.