Critics’ Picks

Etel Adnan, Five Senses for One Death, 1969, ink and watercolor on paper, 11 x 25".

Etel Adnan, Five Senses for One Death, 1969, ink and watercolor on paper, 11 x 25".

San Francisco

Etel Adnan

The Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts
360 Kansas Street
April 17–June 29, 2013

“Words and Places: Etel Adnan,” organized by the graduating class of the Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice at California College of the Arts, is an impeccably timed exhibition, a gift to those of us who wanted to learn more about Adnan after encountering her paintings and tapestry at last summer’s Documenta. Painting is only one of Adnan’s many talents, which have led to a storied career as a poet, novelist, playwright, and journalist. The Wattis exhibition argues for the imbrication of word and image in Adnan’s work, and includes many of the artist’s vibrantly colored, jewel-box landscapes and abstractions as well as prominently placed vitrines housing leporellos, accordion-like artists’ books across which word and image sprawl.

While the precise nature of the relationship between verbal and visual remains underdeveloped, place—in all its specificity and elusiveness—is established with sensitivity. For Adnan, there are primarily three places: Northern California (consolidated in the figure of the majestic Mount Tamalpais, which she calls the most important person in her life), Beirut, and Paris. Interspersed with Adnan’s work are videos by Chris Marker, Rabih Mroué, and the Otolith Group—documentary media set in contrast to painterly marks—that the curators chose to contextualize the artist’s practice. Each video occurs in one of Adnan’s formative places: Marker trains his camera on junk sculptures that formerly populated mudflats in the Bay Area, Mroué edits footage of a collapsing building in Beirut, and the Otolith Group films Adnan reading poems from her volume Sea and Fog (2012) in her Paris apartment. The Otolith Group only depicts Adnan from behind, her orange sweater and a caramel wooden table adding to the glow surrounding her light-flecked silvery bob. Like the places she paints and writes, Adnan herself is at once present and absent, the still center of the exhibition. She turned eighty-eight this year, but the vast majority of paintings, when dated, are relatively recent, from the 1980s to the present. Her paintings are vividly present, but so many are undated and progression is so emphatically denied that aligning them with a life’s work as an unfolding narrative is impossible.