Etel Adnan, the celebrated Lebanese American writer and artist, died on Sunday in Paris. She was 96. Her death was confirmed by her gallery, Galerie Lelong & Co. She is survived by her longtime partner, the artist and publisher Simone Fattal.
Over the course of half a century, Adnan explored themes of political discord, national identity, and feminism in the Arab world in astute poetry and prose. Her novel, Sitt Marie Rose (1978), is among the defining texts of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Later works such as the poetry collection Arab Apocalypse (1980); Of Cities and Women (Letters to Fawwaz), a 1993 book of letters of the artist’s letters; and In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country (2005), a series of vignettes about the personal and the political, have also become touchstones for generations of writers and artists.
Her visual art, which garnered attention only recently, acts as tributes to the natural world and takes the form of luminous abstracted landscapes.
“Etel Adnan inspired all of those fortunate to have met her in person. She taught us how important memory is without nostalgia and made physical in words and images beauty rendered from the light and darkness of the 20th and 21st century,” Mary Sabbatino, vice president and partner at Galerie Lelong, told ARTnews, adding, “As another poet wrote, ‘stop all the clocks/for she is dead.’”
Adnan began painting in the 1960s while teaching aesthetics and philosophy at a college in Northern California. By the 1970s and 1980s, she had published several of poetry and essay collections, but it wasn’t until 2012, when curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev included her in Documenta 13, that her visual art was given the same critical attention.
Her participation in the 2014 Whitney Biennial brought further acclaim. That same year, she was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, France’s highest cultural honor. An exhibition of her work, titled “Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure,” is currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. On display are a selection of her paintings, ceramics, accordion-style artist books, and tapestries.
In a 2014 interview with Bomb Magazine, Adnan reflected on the late-life recognition for her visual art: “I wish this had happened, let’s say, twenty years ago. It’s a nice feeling to have your work appreciated, but it’s almost a fashion for women to be recognized late in life. Agnes Martin, for example. It’s a trend, but we hope it will change.”
Etel Adnan was born in 1925 in Beirut, Lebanon. Her father, Assaf Kadri, was a Damascus-born Syrian and a retired official in the Ottoman army. Her mother, Rosa Kadri, was a Greek that grew up in Smyrna, which is now known as the Turkish city of Izmir. (Kadri changed the family’s surname to Adnan, his father’s first name, in 1932.) Etel described her father as an “unemployable man,” dislocated by the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. Her mother’s hometown was burned in 1922. “I grew up with people who were defeated when they were still young,” she said. Adnan spoke Arabic and Greek at home, and was later enrolled in a Catholic French-language school in Beirut.
In the late 1940s, Adnan left Beirut to study philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1955, she moved to the United States, where she studied philosophy at Berkeley and Harvard before accepting a job teaching aesthetics and philosophy at the Dominican College of California in San Rafael (now the Dominican University of California). She began to write poetry in opposition to the Vietnam War, which were eventually published in the anti-war anthology, Where Is Vietnam.
In 1959, at the age of 34, she began painting at the prompting of the head of the art department.
“[She] wondered how I can teach such a course without practicing painting,” Adnan told the Paris Review. “She gave me crayons and bits of paper, and I started doing little works, and she said I didn’t need any training, that I was a painter. So I kept going.”
Adnan returned to Lebanon in 1972, where she met the artist Simone Fattal. Adnan was working as a cultural editor for two of Beirut’s daily newspapers when the civil war broke out in 1975. She and Fattal fled to Paris, and there, Adnan wrote the novel Sitt Marie Rose, based on the true story of Marie Rose Boulo, who was kidnapped and killed by the Phalangists for her support of the Palestinian cause. (The Phalangists were a militia active in East Beirut during the war).
Adnan returned to California in the late 1970s. She settled in Sausalito, in the Bay Area, and began painting Mount Tamalpais. Applying pigment directly from the tube with a palette knife, she created a series of abstract renderings of the mountain range. The understated geometries—a flat, cosmically scaled sun, a band of color splitting the sky and sea—became hallmarks of her painting, as did the repetition of a single subject in innumerable circumstances.
“Usually, I am a compulsive person, and I need, sometimes urgently, to paint … Painting is close to poetry, is a kind of poetry expressed visually. It has to be spontaneous, rapid, at least in my case,” she said.
The first significant presentation of her paintings came in 2010, when a selection were featured at the influential Galerie Sfeir-Semler gallery in Beirut. Shortly afterward, Documenta invited her to show in its 13th edition. Among the works Adnan displayed were her first filmmaking effort, Motion (1980–89/2012); a palette knife; and several objects from Beirut’s National Museum which had been mutilated when fighting among the militia in the 1970s spilled into the institution.
Her Guggenheim show focuses on her work since the mid-20th century and includes several of her lauded leporellos: according-like artist books in which the distinction between her literary and writing practices partly collapses; in many, ink-drawn glyphs intervene with hand-written lines of verse.
Adnan said more than once that her paintings and writings had different intentions. Her writings were dealt with memory, loss, and social injustice. Her paintings, on the other hand, were meant as deeply personal meditations on the will of the human spirit.
In the Guggenheim’s catalog, Simone Fattal describes Adnan’s art as playing “the role the old icons used to play for people who believed. They exude energy and give energy. They shield you like talismans. They help you live your everyday life.”