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There is this one particular color of paint that appears in many of the paintings by Etel Adnan on view right now at Galerie Lelong in New York. The closest I can get to describing the color is that it’s richer than Coral Red and more electric than Pantone 1787. On Adnan’s uncluttered canvases the color vibrates and pulses with an ecstatic fluorescence that lends many of the abstract works on display an energy and life that I could not look away from.
This color appears again in the set of three pastels hanging on the wall past the reception desk — works that diffuse light and color similarly to but further afield than the pointillists, and that simultaneously evoke a child’s crayon box and dynamic sketches of landscapes. And, again, the color shows up in her lively tapestries.
A line bisecting plains, a light peering out from between or behind shapes, or a field in which a figure has been placed — the color demands your attention, while also suggesting the seams and depths present in Adnan’s relatively small and contained pieces.
In the midst of other colors — clear blues, greens like the stems of tulips, clay-like browns, mango yellows, and adobe oranges — the color acts as a metaphysical presence; a kind of philosophical light-bulb pursuing a winding series of Socratic questions. Is it what you think it is? Does the form arise from the canvas, from you, or from the physical world? What is there to learn from the distillation of form?
Adnan is very much in vogue right now. As she herself points out, she is part of “a fashion for women to be recognized late in life.” Or as Ashton Cooper so aptly noted in an essay for Hyperallergic: “these at-long-last-glorified women artists are being vaunted as emblems of inclusion and steps toward gender equality, when, in fact, the stories that are being told about them are keeping our understanding of women artists firmly grounded in a safe and schematic narrative.”
Adnan has been writing and painting since the middle of the 20th century. Her first solo art exhibition was in 1961 at a small California gallery run by her friend Ann O’Hanlon, who helped encourage Adnan to take up painting. Adnan’s first book of poetry, Moonshots, was published in 1966. For a couple of decades early in her career she taught philosophy at a small Catholic college in Marin County, north of the San Francisco Bay, where she lived for many years. Now known primarily for the vast wealth of its residents, Adnan’s interest for the area in the 1960s seemed largely focused on both its dramatic mountainous landscape, which informs much of her work, and its colonial past — first occupied by indigenous populations, the Spanish waged violent battles to control the land before it eventually became part of California and, soon after, in 1850, the US.
Adnan was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, attended college at the Sorbonne in Paris, and continued her studies in the US at both U.C. Berkeley and Harvard. She returned to Beirut in the mid-1970s to serve as the cultural editor for two major daily newspapers there, and though she returned to California in 1977, she has made regular trips abroad ever since, particularly to Paris, as well as maintaining a strong intellectual and psychic connection to Lebanon.
She has produced a steady and consistently strong output throughout her life — merging a deep political consciousness with a steadfastly philosophical perspective and the deft touch of an artist. But unlike so much that is dubbed masterful in our culture, her work is utterly approachable.
Beyond Adnan’s use of color, one of the things that struck me most about the show at Lelong is the intense economy of her work. Not only are the works of a small scale (few of the paintings exceed 13 x 16 inches), but the paint is generally applied in only one layer. Even the ink washes on her tapestries overlap only marginally or occasionally. On the canvases you can see the prepared white surface below many of the blocks of color, the texture and warp of the canvas. And in some of the works, uneven creases of white emerge between shapes that, even though they are formed with a palette knife, do not define clean or hard edges. There are no obvious edits and changes in her work, no excess — instead, there seems to be a patient clarity, a practiced hand and mind.
That seeming clarity, mixed with her careful balance of the muted and ecstatic, leave space for the mind to wander and walk through the works, to consider what truths or forms might live within them, or simply to sit quietly with them — missives from a thoughtful mind and heart.
Even after leaving the show, in my mind’s eye I can feel the vibrations of those fluorescent marks — the show itself feels like a quietly pulsing vibration, a counterpoint, and, for me, a reminder of the spaces that art occasionally opens up for reflection and questioning without overmuch articulation.
Etel Adnan continues at Galerie Lelong (528 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 8.
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