How a 91-year-old lecturer became a 2016 art star

Etel Adnan's new show at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery shows the fruits of a varied life, lived to the full
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Untitled (Mt. Tamalpais 1), ca. 1983-86 by Etel Adnan; Oil on canvas 35 x 45.5 cm; Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg / Beirut
Untitled (Mt. Tamalpais 1), ca. 1983-86 by Etel Adnan; Oil on canvas 35 x 45.5 cm; Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg / Beirut

Etel Adnan has lived so rich and varied a life, it’s almost overwhelming to learn that, at the age of 91, this Lebanese American novelist, journalist, illustrator, cartoonist, poet, essayist and philosophy lecturer is about to become an art star too.

 

Etel Adnan: The Weight of the World; Installation view; Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (2 June – 11 September 2016); Image © Tristan Fewings
Etel Adnan: The Weight of the World; Installation view; Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (2 June – 11 September 2016); Image © Tristan Fewings

Born in Lebanon in 1925 to a Greek mother and a Syrian father, Adnan studied as an undergraduate at the Sorbonne in Paris, and enrolled in graduate programmes at Harvard, then Berkley. She taught in California before returning to Beirut in 1972 to work on a French-language newspaper. Her novel about the Lebanese civil war, Sitt Marie Rose, won the  Amitié Franco-Arab Prize in 1977. However, Adnan, who now divides her time between California and France, is only just beginning to find her place within the international art world.

 

Etel Adnan: The Weight of the World; Installation view; Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (2 June – 11 September 2016); Image © Tristan Fewings
Etel Adnan: The Weight of the World; Installation view; Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (2 June – 11 September 2016); Image © Tristan Fewings

Her work was included in the 2012 Documenta 13 show in Kessels, Germany, and in the 2014 Whitney Biannual, and is in the permanent collections of MoMA, the British Museum and the Pompidou, she hasn’t the kind of institutional representation you might expect, given the strength of a new London show, which opens today at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery.

The Weight of the World, which is on until 11 September, is largely made up of colourful, vigorous abstract paintings; the earliest date from the 1960s, while the most recent – including the series which gives the show its name – were created in 2016.

 

Etel Adnan; Untitled, ca. 1995 – 2000; Oil on canvas 40 x 50 cm; Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg / Beirut
Etel Adnan; Untitled, ca. 1995 – 2000; Oil on canvas 40 x 50 cm; Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg / Beirut

Most of these are oil on canvas, but a few are watercolours, and a few more are painted wool tapestries. These were partially inspired by the Persian rugs of her childhood. She drew on old sketchbook pieces when creating the textiles and this unusual use of media, combined with employment of the artist’s vast archive, hints at the show’s depths.

There are also some films from the 1980s, snatches of poetry and memoirs on paper, and also a series of leporellos, or concertina-folded sketchbooks, which open out into a kind of strip of text, images and pictograms. One carries a poem by the Lebanese writer Issa Makhlouf; another depicts the New York skyline; another multiple views of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, California, which Adnan has been painting and drawing for the past few decades.

 

Etel Adnan
Etel Adnan

You can spot Tamalpais, in varying degrees of abstraction on almost every wall of the gallery – when asked by a TV interviewer who was the most important person she had ever met, the artist apparently answered “a mountain.” Yet that’s perhaps the only overarching theme in this show which covers many languages and continents, never mind various media and artistic periods, save perhaps the undeniable fact that Adnan’s work is the product of a life fully lived.

You can find out more about Adnan and her art in our forthcoming contemporary painting survey Vitamin P3, which follows on from Vitamin P and Vitamin P2. More news on that book soon. 


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