At the entrance to Etel Adnan’s survey exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, “The Weight of the World,” were three large-scale tapestries from 2015 and 2016 depicting natural themes in joyful splashes of color—the sea at low tide, an autumn forest, and foliage perceived as, according to the work’s title, “springtime acrobatics.” Opposite hung a fourth tapestry, dated 2014; although the work is titled Feux d’Artifice (Fireworks), its black jagged gunlike marks and slivers of red between dominant grays and browns are more suggestive of violence than of celebration, and serve as a reminder of Adnan’s background growing up in the turmoil of twentieth-century Lebanon.
Nature and war thread like twin strands through the multifaceted practice of this artist, who is also a poet, writer, and activist. She was born in Beirut in 1925 to a Greek mother and a Syrian father, and while her vibrant visual output is largely inspired by nature, much of her writing addresses the brutal histories of her homeland and of other nations. The Serpentine exhibition focused on Adnan’s work from the 1960s to the present and spanned paintings, drawings, tapestries, ceramics, film, and leporelli (accordion-folded books) containing ink drawings and Arabic poems illustrated in watercolor.
In her painting, Adnan has moved from blocky oil compositions to recognizable mountain landscapes to, in recent decades, a synthesis of the two. Her jubilant use of color runs throughout the works and places her in a lineage of artists including Sonia Delaunay and Paul Klee. In her long-form essay Journey to Mount Tamalpais (1986), Adnan wrote: “Color is the sign of the existence of life. . . . I exist because I see colors.” While most of her early canvases appear abstract, their titles occasionally hint at locations that have inspired her. In Arizona (1964–65), strips of terra-cotta, ocher, white, and rust conjure the hues of the desert. Adnan’s move to Sausalito, California, in the 1970s marked the start of her long obsession with Mount Tamalpais, which she has compared to Cézanne’s relationship with Mont Sainte-Victoire. In her patchwork pyramids inspired by the mountain, one discerns the scenery at different times of day, from the verdant greens and yellows of noon to the pinks and indigos of dusk. The exhibition’s title series consists of twenty compact canvases, which were created for the Serpentine space and work together as a totality. Each features a large vivid circle resembling a cosmic body, such as a sun or a moon, floating above a band of color, a pyramid, or a circle that might denote sea, mountain, or earth.
Adnan’s film Motion (1980–89/2012) complemented her paintings. Shot on a Super 8 camera, it shows images of the sun as a blurry yellow disk, silhouetted triangles of mountains at night, fleeting reflections in the grid windows of a skyscraper, sunlight glinting on running water—the world distilled to sensations and movement. If Adnan’s paintings and film invite reflections on the cosmos, the eight ceramic tiles presented here do so even more explicitly. These studies for a monumental ceramic mural, Le Soleil Amoureux de la Lune (The Sun in Love with the Moon, 2014), reverberate with brightly colored crescents, disks, arrows, and zigzags in a primeval chaos recalling the later work of Wassily Kandinsky.
A central room in the show was given over to cityscapes—attractive ink drawings of New York and of the Italian town San Gimignano on foldout leporelli, which were echoed in panoramas of San Gimignano drawn in resin on large alabaster folding screens. It was the only room devoid of color, such a vital metaphysical force for Adnan, and felt in its restraint like a haiku amid the effusion of visual poetics. The contrast helped throw into relief the range of this ninety-one-year-old artist, who remains passionately alive to her surroundings.