Etel Adnan’s bittersweet arrival at the Guggenheim

“I went to the moon… Planet Earth is old news,” Etel Adnan writes in his 2011 essay “The Cost of Love We Are Unwilling to Pay”. “This is the house we are throwing away. We definitely don’t like it. Adnan’s fantasy of escaping the gravity of this planet now reverberates with an additional premonitory sight, but it’s also a lament about the violence we inflict on him and ourselves, and the sadness of giving up something. something so beautiful. It is the pain of displacement, with which this artist and author was intimately familiar.

Adnan, who was born in Lebanon in 1925, has lived much of her adult life outside her country of 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 appreciated for her writings, her passionate protests against the wars in Vietnam and Lebanon and against French colonial rule in Algeria, a struggle with which she expressed her solidarity by renouncing writing in French and declaring that she would begin to “Paint in Arabic”. The tranquility of his bright and sensual paintings is miraculous given the violence that colored much of his experience of the world.

The art world likes to keep women artists waiting for recognition, and Adnan gained attention for her visual art particularly late, with a presentation at Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany, in 2012, when she was 86 years old. After that, the galleries seemed eager to make up for lost time by frequently exhibiting his work. The latest, “Light’s New Measure,” a Guggenheim investigation into Adnan’s paintings, tapestries, and accordion booklets of handwritten poetry punctuated with washed-out gouache from the 1960s, arrived with bittersweet timing. But the phosphorescence of his work has not faded.

Adnan’s paintings are remarkable for the existential intensity that they manage to contain in a restricted field. (Most are no wider than a magazine cover.) But within their formal economy lies a deeply focused view, balanced between figuration and abstraction, and never fully tilted into either. They vibrate between geometric shapes – quilts of airplanes in earthy tones, like flattened landscapes seen above, a perspective preferred by West Coast Abstract Expressionists like Richard Diebenkorn; and celestial bodies with intense pigments – floating suns and shining orbs suspended in space or hovering above a horizon like benevolent deities. Adnan applied his oils in a thick layer and scraped them off his canvases with a palette knife, leaving the constructed surfaces as evidence of their own making. His simple gestures may seem childish, even crude, but they express a deeply felt polyphonic cosmology.

Looking at Adnan’s paintings, which ascend the two lower rings of the Guggenheim, can cause a fit of synesthesia. Discordant forms blend harmoniously, as if bleated by a saxophone in “Untitled” (1961/62), a small composition of interlocking rectangles anchored by a chalk white background. The unstretched canvas comes off its support, 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 Rouen Cathedral, in seemingly endless permutations. (She called him her best friend.) For Adnan, the mountain was fused with her memory, and reveling in awe of nature was also a way of expressing her inner life. These are romantic ideas, perhaps outdated but nonetheless powerful. “Some things are not meant to be clear; darkness is their clarity, ”Adnan said. “It has its own lighting.

“Light’s New Measure” includes several of Adnan’s tapestries, which she began making in the 1960s, modernist expressions of Persian rugs that were a familiar presence during her childhood. They are of an exuberant Fauvism and their larger scale has allowed him to be more loose with his forms, some of which dance freely in a large negative space. They are sensory collisions, the paint and the fibers each lending one texture to the other. But the most mystical works are the tightest. “Untitled” (1980s), a canvas barely wider than a butter knife, contains half a dozen shades of blue: streaks of deep ultramarine, brackish gray-blues, cobalt, l ‘indigo. It seems to have unlimited depth, a mass of crashing sea that bends over the course of a lifetime.

His later paintings show no loss of power. In a series of three compact paintings, all from 2010, three bands of vivid color create a startlingly lucid sky and sea, a low sun scorching even as it plunges. In a moment that may seem largely colorless, Adnan’s paintings are balm, like slipping into a ray of warm afternoon light.

The rest of the Guggenheim rotunda is occupied by a separate exhibition by Vasily Kandinsky, and if the tendency to find harmony in each of these singular works by artists is largely a suggestion of proximity, there are echoes: in the multiplicity of their forms, their lyricism, and their convergence of geometry and nature, or, as Adnan said, “the lace of Russian grandmothers and biochemical cultures merged into very personal images that come together. move in a fluid made of color ”.

Curators provide a more substantial connection, taken from a review Adnan wrote of Kandinsky’s Guggenheim exhibition in 1963, which she saw on her first trip to New York. Today as then, we can see Kandinsky’s “Several Circles” of 1926, a neat universe of diaphanous orbiting discs floating in black space. For both artists, the circle was a numinous symbol. Seen together, Adnan’s forms begin to resemble Kandinsky’s distilled forms in their most essential state. Even if it’s overdone, the ability to stand in front of “many circles” like Adnan did almost 60 years ago, and see what she did after, does matter.

Adnan was painting his mountain as recently as last year, strongly abstracted in diamond shapes in creamy pastel peaches, pinks and rusty golds. These places are real but cannot be visited, because they only existed in Adnan’s mind, but his paintings still offer a portal, the possibility of another world.

Etel Adnan: the new measure of light

Until January 10, 2022 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-423 3500;

Vasily Kandinsky: Around the circle

Until September 5, 2022

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