View of “Etal Adnan,” 2013. Foreground: Untitled 1, 2013.

View of “Etal Adnan,” 2013. Foreground: Untitled 1, 2013.

Etel Adnan

Sfeir-Semler Gallery | Beirut

View of “Etal Adnan,” 2013. Foreground: Untitled 1, 2013.

The two great subjects of Etel Adnan’s paintings are a mountain in California and the Mediterranean Sea. For the past six decades, she has returned to them again and again, playing with the endless possibilities that color, texture, and a palette knife lend to her diminutive geometric abstractions of a peak and a horizon line. The most whimsical thing about her recent exhibition in Beirut, however, was neither Mount Tamalpais in Marin County nor the curve of the Levantine coastline. Rather, it was the way the sun and the moon slipped into those familiar landscapes and then seemed to follow viewers around the space. A sequence of thirty-one small canvases—all Untitled and painted in the past two years—lined the eastern and southern walls of the gallery. Almost every single work featured a full, gorgeous orb signaling day or night in a vividly rendered sky. Hung at regular intervals, the paintings felt like the spread-out pages of a flip-book, pale moons yielding to vibrant suns and then, on one occasion, becoming square, and on another, doubling up in a single plane.

Renowned as a writer, poet, and public intellectual (a perilously endangered species in the Arab world), Adnan is now eighty-eight years old. Incongruously for a woman who has moved around restlessly all of her life, Adnan rarely strays beyond the borders of Europe these days. Still, she remains bafflingly prolific, which means she is painting her mountain and sea from memory. “I don’t have to close my eyes,” she writes in Paris, When It’s Naked (1993), a book about coming to grips with the literary and imperial legacies of France. “The sea is in front of me most of the time. . . . It is open on each side, and all the way to the horizon. The horizon used to be my childhood home,” she continues. “I know it so well. I built on it complete cities, surrounded by flames, and they were engulfed in fires like the city of Smyrna.”

Looking at Adnan’s artwork in isolation, one might never know that the counterpoint to her paintings—which are elegant and airy and appear to have been made with great ease—consists of such bruised and wounded language. Her writing fills a life’s worth of tough, compact books that touch on moments of extreme violence (North African immigrants protesting in Paris, the breakdown of the state in Lebanon, the invasion of Iraq) and at the same time become tangled up in the brilliantly complex narratives of Adnan’s own life as a Beirut-born daughter of Islam, the Ottoman Empire (her father, from Damascus, was a high-ranking officer in the sultan’s army), Greek exodus, the Orthodox Church, French rule, and Lebanon’s long and gruesome civil war. In this exhibition, all of those books—including a newly published volume of her criticism, all but forgotten until now—were lined up on a shelf opposite eight leporellos, accordion-pleated artist’s books, some purely pictorial, others transcribing the poems of friends and colleagues. Around one corner hung six collage-like paintings dating from 1963 through 1970, and four riotous wool tapestries, including the colorful California, 1977, and the humorous, jazzy, Mondrianesque Champs de petrol (Oil Fields), 2013. Around another corner was a selection of Adnan’s experimental Super 8 films from the 1960s, and an hour-long black-and-white film from 2007 by the Greek director Vouvoula Skoura, who set out to adapt Adnan’s book Of Cities and Women: Letters to Fawwaz (1993) and ended up making a documentary instead. With quotations from Adnan’s writing stuck somewhat tackily to the wall, the presentation verged on offering too much material until, perhaps, one read “We spent a lifetime running after our life, running into that soft wall, looking for the energy to die” and then “Painters have a knowledge that goes beyond words,” and felt satisfied that the work was done.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie