Untitled2013 by Etel Adnan

...[Her works are] small, exhuberant landscape abstractions, made out of a series of colorful, geometric shapes painted with a palette knife. I thought that Etel, who turned 87 recently, only started to paint recently or that her art was only now beginning to gain attention. It’s not so, she told me when I contacted her by e-mail (she didn’t want to be interviewed by phone). “I am painting since 1959,” she wrote. She got her start because someone told her she should practice what she preaches. “[I] was in California, teaching among other courses, one in philosophy of art. So the head of the art department wondered how I can teach such a course without practicing painting. 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.”

Etel said she’s been showing her work in Lebanon and elsewhere, “on and off,” ever since. But the recent show at the Galerie Sfeir-Semler, an influential gallery that shows the likes of Lebanese-American Walid Raad (who is having a concurrent show at Paula Cooper right now), in Beirut, in 2010, seems to have been a turning point. The “gallery, which has a place in Hamburg and one in Beirut, asked me if I would show there,” Etel wrote. “I said yes. Happily.” This show led to her being chosen for dOCUMENTA (13). “It happened that Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of dOCUMENTA (13), came to Beirut the day before the opening, saw my works, and offered that I join Documenta in 2012. I have to say that I was very very surprised.”

...Etel’s paintings have a different sensibility than her writing. Her prose suggests a world of brutality and chaos. Her art has a cheerful, sunny disposition. “Her writing is as fiercely complex and political as her paintings are serenely spare and personal,” Kaelen wrote in Frieze. At the reading Kaelen repeated a quote Etel once said about her writing and art. “I write what I see, I paint what I am.” To me, she wrote: “My writing and my paintings do not have a direct connection in my mind. But I am sure they influence each other in the measure that everything we do is linked to whatever we are, which includes whatever we have done or are doing. But in general, my writing is involved with history as it is made (but not only) and my painting is very much a reflection of my immense love for the world, the happiness to just be, for nature, and the forces that shape a landscape.”

She says that she does not paint regularly. There are periods when she writes, and others when she paints. “I can draw, though, once in a while, when I am involved with a work of writing,” she wrote. “Usually, I am a compulsive person, and I need, some times urgently, to paint … Painting is close to poetry, is a kind of poetry expressed visually. It has to be spontaneous, rapid, at least in my case.” Arab art has little lineage of its own. Much of the work being made there in the last half century is rooted in Western art movements. When asked about her own influences, Etel says: “I have a great love for some painters in particular: Malevich, Klee, Kandinsky, Delacroix, in contemporaries, Agnes Martin, Polke …”

I had brought up Nicolas de Staël as an obvious point of reference in her work. “I love Nicolas de Staël particularly, and my work can remind people of him,” she wrote. “But looked at attentively, our works are not similar at all. There is the fact that he used a palette knife, and so do I for my oil paintings, and the palette knife forces you in a way to apply large sections of color on the canvas. It is the opposite of a brush (which I use for inks and watercolors).” At dOCUMENTA (13) her palette knife was shown in a display case along with a series of objects from Beirut’s National Museum, burnt and fused when militiamen in the early 1970s turned the museum into a fighting post....
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