Etel Adnan’s texts and pictures are about the metaphysical realms that neither language nor image can fully describe. “Words and Places,” Adnan’s first large-scale solo exhibition, brought together paintings, newspaper articles, leporellos (accordion-folded books) and video by the Lebanese-American poet, journalist and artist. Born in 1925 in Beirut to a Christian Greek mother and Muslim Syrian father, Adnan made Paris and the Bay Area her secondary homes for political and professional reasons.
Adnan’s vibrant paintings were a high point at Documenta last year, but in San Francisco, among other works, they are simply one facet of Adnan’s hybrid identity. Small and delicate, each object deserves careful, up-close observation. The arrangement in the warehouselike space worked well: petite, candy-colored canvases hung across from somber ink drawings with geometric shapes or poetry in dainty cursive, projections of articles and videos, and leporellos laid flat in vitrines.
Adnan seems to be engrossed in a quest to locate an adequate language—whether textual or visual—with which to communicate her rich internal life. Her devotion to pure expression and color has elicited comparisons to Paul Klee, and the two artists share an attention to sensory perception and its relation to the human condition. Adnan often finishes paintings in several hours, applying paint directly from the tube with a palette knife, yielding canvases that depict Mount Tamalpais in Marin County with polygonal bursts of saturated color. Part landscape, part impressionistic memory, the paintings could be of anything or any place.
The leporellos, which were displayed stretched out to their full length, reveal the range of Adnan’s inspirations. There are studies of inkpots, watery earth-colored streaks reminiscent of hilly landscapes, cartoonish flurries of black splotches and scratches, and entire illustrated poems, like “Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut” (1968). The politics of geography and colonial occupation come to the surface in some of the leporellos. Though Adnan speaks Arabic, her education eschewed reading and writing in Lebanon’s native tongue in favor of colonial French. As noted in the show’s catalogue, for one of her earliest leporellos, she copied Arabic poetry onto the paper without being able to decipher the letters. The words are transformed into beautiful symbols.
“Words and Places” was not really a solo exhibition; the curators, CCA’s graduating curatorial studies students, included videos by other artists that anchor Adnan’s life in her three native cities. One was by Chris Marker, of a junkyard in a Bay Area mudflat (Junkopia, 1981), another by Rabih Mroué, who reversed footage of the demolition of a house in Beirut, making it lurch from chaos into wholeness (Old House, 2006-11). There was also a 2012 video by the Otolith Group of Adnan reading her poem “I See Infinite Distance between Any Point and Another” in her Paris apartment.
One new entry point for English speakers was the first translation of articles written by Adnan in the early 1970s for Al-Safa, a Beirut-based francophone cultural newspaper. The articles reveal Adnan’s two voices. When discussing politics, she has a razor-sharp acuity and an acerbic wit; she reserves tenderness for fellow poets. In a 1972 article eulogizing the poet Youssef Ghossoub, Adnan writes: “All night long, I could not tear myself away from the quality of his silence. Wrapped in a waking dream, he was absolutely present, absolutely happy to be with his friends, and yet he said nothing. . . . I have witnessed this miraculous phenomenon when poetry reaches the fullest silence.”