Christopher Bernard reviews the San Francisco MoMa’s Etel Adnan exhibit



Explosion Florale




A review by Christopher Bernard

New Work

Etel Adnan

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Until January 6, 2019

It is tempting to call Etel Adnan a contemporary instance of the “late bloomer”: someone whose work came into its own after most people’s lives have begun winding down.

But it may be more accurate to call us, in this instance, the “late bloomers,” almost scandalously delayed, as we have been, in recognizing what has been blossoming vigorously among us all this time.

Because, at 93, Adnan is finally receiving her due for a body of work she has been creating for more than half a century and continues to create, oblivious to age, at a dazzling rate.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit (curated with particular perceptiveness and sensitivity by Eungie Joo, the museum’s curator of contemporary art) succeeds admirably in introducing us to Etel Adnan’s spirit and gifts in oil painting, tapestries, and ink drawings (she is also an important poet, novelist, and playwright, but more about that later).

The oils paintings (fifteen in all, and all created this year) dominate the show: small, powerfully composed color-field works, with flat, brilliantly balanced colored geometric forms (anchoring squares and sun-like circles dominating some, dramatic valley and mountain forms dominating others, and sinuous root and mineral-like shapes dominating yet others), that consistently fascinate the eye, both stimulating and calming the emotions, with the economy that is achieved in only the maturest art.

Adnan’s simple forms indeed display the care and practice of a long lifetime, their economy balanced with vitality and the artist’s subtle and invigorating sense of color and tone. One looks at these paintings of an unsurpassed simplicity impressed by how they also manage to be so dynamic.

Adnan’s ongoing recognition has included retrospectives in major galleries, appearances in important exhibits of work by woman artists in New York and in Europe, including dOCUMENTA (13), and two magnificently produced monographs published this year. This is her first exhibition at SFMOMA, in the Bay Area where she lived for many years – years, appositely for this exhibit, when she discovered herself as an artist. In fact this museum is an important source of Adnan’s deceptively naïve and childlike aesthetic, as it houses the Djerassi collection of Paul Klee, whose work (and that collection in particular), had enormous early influence on her own art, as the artist herself has attested.

It is worth noting that Adnan is not only an artist of concentrated grace but, having begun her creative life as a philosopher and poet (in French and, later, English), is now accepted as one of the most innovative and influential modern writers from the Arab world.

Etel Adnan’s life spans several continents: born of a Turkish father and Greek mother in Beirut (where she was educated in French; French becoming her first “literary” language), she won a scholarship in 1949 to the Sorbonne in Paris, where she met the writer André Gide and studied under philosophers Gaston Bachelard and Etienne Souriau. Six years later she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue doctoral work in esthetics at the University of California, Berkeley. During her years in the Bay Area, she began experimenting with painting and drawing, creating her first leporellos (a specialty of the artist’s), books made of long, folded paper opening out like long friezes, in which Adnan incorporates both poetry and art.

Late in the 1960s, while teaching philosophy, Adnan also began designing tapestries, two of which are on view here. In the early 1970s she returned to Beirut, where she edited a leading newspaper’s culture section. With the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon, she settled briefly in Paris, later returning to the Bay Area where she published her award-winning first novel, Sitt Marie Rose, her most read and translated book.

Adnan lived just north of San Francisco, near the foot of Mt. Tamalpais. The mountain, which dominates the northern skyline across from the Golden Gate (I can see it from my window even as I write this), became, in its many moods of shadow, sun, and rain, one of the most important motifs in both her poetry and painting, as clearly evidenced in this show. She lived, wrote, and painted in that place for a number of years before, now in her nineties, finally settling permanently in Paris.

The show’s two tapestries (one from 1968, a ragged dance of oranges and yellows broken by rivers of blue; the other, a swirl of blossoms and petals against an azure and purple background, titled “Explosion Florale,” designed in 1968 and completed in 2018) are amoebic swathes of shape and color. The drawings in the three leporellos display dramatic flourishes of ink and energetic marks of an almost ecstatic joyfulness.

In fact, the note struck by Etel Adnan’s work over the years, whether in paint, drawing, tapestry, or words (and a disclosure is due here: I have known Etel Adnan since she lived in the Bay Area, and have been following her career in writing and art for a long time), is the very note she strikes in person: an overflowing of love and affection, joy and gratitude for the life and people around her, for everyone who meets her, and for those who are lucky enough to enjoy a greatness of spirit that radiates like so many suns from her art.

It is only right that the Bay Area, one of her many homes, and the one where she discovered herself as an artist, should celebrate this triumphant art that rose among us.

There are a few artists who blossomed throughout a long lifetime, rising to ever greater heights in their great age: Titian, Matisse, Picasso, Michelangelo, Renoir, Rembrandt. Only time will tell, of course, but to this select number it may one day seem perfectly appropriate, even obvious, to add the name Etel Adnan.

The museum store offers for sale, along with the monographs mentioned above, three of Adnan’s most recent books: Premonition, Night, and Surge – thought-provoking, beautifully written works of philosophical prose poetry as accessible and enlivening in words as her art is in form and color.


Christopher Bernard is co-editor and poetry editor of Caveat Lector. He writes on dance, drama, and art for Synchronized Chaos. His most recent book is the poetry collection Chien Lunatique.