NORTH ADAMS, MASSACHUSETTS — In her first ever solo U.S. museum show, internationally acclaimed Arab-American artist Etel Adnan tests the limits of expression in an exhibition of leporellos, written texts, and recent works including never-before-seen paintings. A yellow sun A green sun a yellow sun A red sun A blue sun is on view beginning Saturday, April 7, with a reception to celebrate the artist and her work on Saturday, May 26.
Raised in Lebanon under the French mandate (1923-1946), Adnan was born into a fraught relationship with language. She learned French first — the language of the colonizer — before she knew Arabic, which she learned later, as an adult. Likewise, she began painting long after embarking on a literary and academic career. She is widely recognized for her poetry and prose, which for over sixty years have treated subjects including war, exile, and space travel. In 1958, while wars for independence raged in former French colonies, Adnan sought a mode of expression other than her writing in French. She began to paint and draw, as she says, “in Arabic.” A yellow sun A green sun a yellow sun A red sun A blue sun is inspired by this crucial moment in the artist’s life, which provokes the consideration of her visual arts practice as an effort of translation — from writing to painting, from French to Arabic — all in pursuit of a pure expression.
Several of Adnan’s leporellos, Japanese accordion-fold books that expand lengthwise up to fourteen feet, will be included in the exhibition. Introduced to her by an artist friend who gifted her a leporello to complete, Adnan was struck by their resemblance to scrolls, and recognized the possibility of the leporello format for experiments in hybrid media. The unique material allowed her to play with narrative form, illustrating the folded surface left to right, or ignoring the intuitive structure of the book to treat the leporello as one whole page. An example of the latter will be included in the exhibition, covered evenly in black ink drawings evocative of written marks. In her leporellos one also finds Adnan’s rare experiments in Arabic. She began by copying poems by famous Arabic authors; given that the artist does not compose in this language, her original use of Arabic script recalls its historic decorative applications in calligraphy.
The leporellos represent the most literal bridge between the artist’s literary and visual arts practice. This exhibition suggests the poetic possibility of a similar connection in Adnan’s paintings: a dozen paintings, mostly made in the last decade, will comprise the core of the exhibition. The artist has always worked on small canvases, partially because of the way she paints. She places her canvases flush on her desk and bends over them, just as if at work on a manuscript. The paintings are recognizable for their bold formal abstraction, composed of oil paint in vivid colors applied to the canvas confidently with a palette knife, often straight from the tube. Early works were more abstract, related to one another by the presence of a red patch somewhere on the canvas. This acts as what literary theorist Roland Barthes called the punctum in photography — the detail that pulls a viewer in irresistibly, and which instantaneously organizes the picture and orients the viewer to it.
Some more recent works, like those on view in this exhibition, swap the patch of red for a sun, indexing the presence of a real-life referent — the landscape. Places dear to Adnan appear in these works, from Mount Tamalpais in northern California to the seaside in Beirut. As she has grown older and unable to travel far from her home in Paris, her abstract landscapes have taken on a fantastic, incandescent quality, charged by the artist’s imaginative longing. The paintings are made quickly, nearly unconsciously, summoned as readily as a spoken reply in a native language.