Artist to Know: Etel Adnan

Liz Catalano
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Sotheby’s Online Auction to Include Lebanese Artist/ Poet

A painter, poet, and essayist, Etel Adnan’s career has continued into her nineties. Native to Beirut, Lebanon, Adnan spent many years living and teaching in California’s Bay Area. Though best known for her poems and works of criticism, Adnan’s visual language has grown out of her writing and is recognized today in its own right. Two of her works are coming to auction in the upcoming Contemporary Curated sale, presented by Sotheby’s and guest-curated by Margherita Maccapani Missoni. Get to know Etel Adnan before the event.

Etel Adnan in 2014. Image from Artsy
Etel Adnan in 2014. Image from Artsy

Born in 1925, Adnan studied aesthetic philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, preparing herself to one day teach the philosophy of art at the University of California, Berkeley. She did not create her own work for many years, however, focusing her attention on writing. Under the tutelage of a colleague, Ann O’Hanlon, she eventually began painting using only a palette knife. She took an immediate liking to the practice. Adnan was especially interested in the poetic nature of her colors, exploring the same set in almost all of her paintings.

Her writing often explores darker themes than her visual work, addressing issues of war and feminism in the Arab world. The Poetry Foundation describes the “…unexpected and experimental techniques [she uses] to address the nature of exile and political, social, and gender-based injustice.” Adnan’s paintings both interact with and stand apart from her written critiques.

In an interview with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, she connected her two favored mediums: “Basically, I came to painting from poetry. That was my first expression. Poetry, it’s in time, it’s one line at a time. Painting… it’s like a lightning strike.”

Adnan’s visual work explores the beauty of Northern California in a Modernist style. She employs soft colors and patchwork patterns to evoke mountains, suns, and landscapes. Adnan has been particularly drawn to Mount Tamalpais, a peak in Marin County, California. Its shape recurs in her paintings, including those she creates from memory today.

Mount Tamalpais, 1985, Etel Adnan. Image from the Sursock Museum.
Mount Tamalpais, 1985, Etel Adnan. Image from the Sursock Museum.

Though long-recognized for a successful French novel and her written protests against the Lebanese Civil War, Adnan’s visual work has only recently gained attention. Mary Sabbatino has represented Adnan at Galerie Lelong since 2014 and notes the increase in popularity: “When she was picked for Documenta [in 2012], everyone suddenly ‘discovered’ her. But she wasn’t discovered; the venue finally matched her achievements.”

The documenta exhibition is held every five years in Kassel, Germany. It features contemporary art and runs for 100 days. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the show’s director, saw Adnan’s work two years before the 2012 event and offered her a significant place in dOCUMENTA (13). Since that exhibition, Adnan’s work has been displayed at the Whitney Biennial in New York, at a woman-focused show at the Museum of Modern Art, and at the Serpentine Galleries in London.

The auction industry has also reflected Adnan’s rising presence in the market. Since 2017, her oil paintings have regularly sold for USD 30,000 and above. Galerie Lelong sold original Adnan pieces for up to USD 54,000 at Art Basel in 2018. Most recently, an untitled work from the late 1980s sold for GBP 62,500 (USD 77,000) at Sotheby’s in late March 2020. The final price for that oil on canvas piece was above the high estimate of GBP 60,000.

Untitled, 1980, Etel Adnan. Image from Sotheby’s.
Untitled, 1980, Etel Adnan. Image from Sotheby’s.

Both of Adnan’s works available in the upcoming auction were executed in the 1980s, one a pastel portrait of Mount Tamalpais and the other an abstract sketching signed in Arabic. The former work emphasizes a thin white outline of the mountain. The background is completely filled in with olive green, except for an orange sun and an aqua smudge in the sky. Estimates for both pieces range from GBP 7,000 – 9,000.

Now almost 100 years old, Adnan remains active in both her writing and painting. “I am aware that time is running short, that any work may be the last one,” she says from her Paris studio. “I live with a great feeling of urgency.” The art world has responded in kind over the last ten years, increasingly offering examples of the poet-artist’s work.

The upcoming Sotheby’s sale will open for online bidding on April 14, 2020, at 9:00 AM, EDT. Visit the auction catalog to learn more.