Comprehensive Etel Adnan exhibition on view at K20

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Comprehensive Etel Adnan exhibition on view at K20
Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2010-2011. Oil on canvas, 25,4 x 35,2 x 2,8 cm. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022 Photo: Achim Kukulies, Düsseldorf.

DUSSELDORF.- Born in Beirut, Etel Adnan (1925–2021) was a Lebanese American poet, painter, and philosopher. Her artistic and literary work is characterized by a great and lived ex- change between the Arab and Western worlds. The exhibition at K20 presents works from all of her creative periods from the 1960s to 2021, paying tribute to the diversity of Etel Adnan's work, which spans more than six decades: paintings, drawings, tapestries, leporellos, texts, and a large ceramic wall piece.

The work of Adnan, who spent her life between Lebanon, France, and California, combines very different art forms, media, languages, and cultures. After the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962), she refused to continue working in French and showed solidarity with Algeria: “I didn’t need to write in French anymore, I was going to paint in Arabic.” Her political clarity, as well as the close connection between writing and painting, became an essential feature of her oeuvre.

The exhibition presents the artist’s work in thematic chapters. These are themes that accompanied Adnan throughout her life and had a strong influence on her work. At the same time, selected chapters provide an in-depth look at Adnan’s chosen genres. In this way, not only is a dialogue with other artistic positions of classical modernism made possible, but a reference to Adnan's chosen materials and working methods is also repeatedly established.

These chapters are flanked by films that emerged from Adnan's joint projects with filmmaker friends. They examine aspects of her artistic work, but also her political commitment, experiences of exile and her search for an identity between cultures.
Etel Adnan. Poetry of Colors at K20 Exile Etel Adnan’s story begins in Smyrna, now İzmir, Turkey, where her Greek mother and Syrian father meet. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, they marry and flee to Beirut in 1923. Adnan is born there in 1925. The experience of exile accompanies Adnan throughout her life. Her paintings and literary works are therefore characterized by a special cultural complexity.


It is not until 1960—when Adnan is living in Sausalito near San Francisco and teaching philosophy at the Dominican College of San Rafael—that she begins to paint. Her encounter with the American artist, art professor, and colleague Ann O’Hanlon is decisive. Painting becomes an important means of expression for Adnan, alongside her work as a poet. “I didn’t need to belong to a language-orientated culture, but to an open form of expression.”

Already with her first paintings, such as Hot (ca. 1960, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen), Adnan shows a predilection for abstraction. Rectangles and shapes developed from the movement of the palette knife, as well as intense colors and subtle color combinations, determine her compositions. This chapter traces the path from the early works to the final works in 2021. Here, with the help of loans from a private collection, it has also been possible to present paintings from the 1970s.


Etel Adnan’s interest in nature is omnipresent in both her painterly and her lyrical work. In her paintings, this is evident in the motif of Mount Tamalpais, as well as in compositions with elementary forms such as the circle or the square. The few surviving photographs and her video recordings are also dedicated to natural phenomena: “I feel attracted to the simplest images: the mountain, the Pacific, the birds flying over the mountain, and New York, with the skyscrapers, the light reflected on them.”


The art of carpet weaving is an important medium for Etel Adnan. In 1966, she travels to North Africa, where she visits an art center founded by the architect Ramses Wissa Wassef in Harrania, Egypt. The children of the region are taught to weave tapestries, which they make freely and without a pattern. When she returns to San Francisco, Adnan has some of her designs woven as carpets. She takes classes with the artist Ida Grae, who experiments with vegetable dyes and new forms of weaving. Tapestry is a very elaborate and expensive medium. Adnan’s designs are therefore not realized for many years. It is only in the 2010s, when she receives increasing international attention, that she is given the opportunity to realize them in collaboration with the manufactory Les Ateliers Pinton d’Aubusson-Felletin (France).

The Arabic World

“At the time, my head had to cope—and it still has to cope—with a double life: The passionate interest in America and, lying underneath, a strong attachment to the Arab world." Adnan spends almost her entire life in the United States, in France and, time and again, in Beirut. She is an important voice in the Arab world. She writes against the backdrop of the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62) and the Lebanese Civil War (1975–90), calling for greater political freedom. “I didn’t need to write in French anymore, I was going to paint in Arabic,” she later wrote about her personal, temporary departure from French and her turn to painting and the medium of the leporello. For her folding books, she is in contact with numerous contemporary Arab poets, whose texts she inscribes in the paper format and combines with drawings or watercolors. Highlights of the exhibition include the leporellos Al-Sayyab, Mother and Lost Daughter (1970) and Untitled (1971) from the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, which are being shown in Europe for the first time.


Adnan is always inspired by the cities she visits and settles in. Beirut, Paris, San Francisco and Berkeley, New York. In her works—her film Motion, as well as many drawings and leporellos—she depicts the city as an ever-changing landscape and an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Motion (2012) thus presents everyday moments in short passages, shot in Manhattan, Sausalito, San Francisco, and Yosemite Park.


One of the themes that repeatedly preoccupy Etel Adnan and permeate her work is war. The Vietnam War (1955–75) prompted her first political statement. After the United States entered the war, she wrote her first poem in English in 1965. In response to the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–90), she leaves Beirut. In Paris, in response, she writes one of her most famous texts, the novel Sitt Marie-Rose, which is published in France in 1978. The cycle of poems Arab Apocalypse follows in 1980. On view in the exhibition is the complete manuscript of the English edition.


In a separate reading room, Adnan is presented as a poet, novelist, essayist, and journalist. Long before Etel Adnan becomes a painter, she is already a poet. Her earliest childhood memories are associated with writing exercises and playing with formulations. “Today, I think of these early fabrications as a way of storytelling, brief moments of imaginative think- ing.” Adnan writes about what surrounds and preoccupies her: art, nature, her encounters with other people, the political and social upheavals she witnesses, the war. “The stories spring from a lived experience; all are autobiographical to some degree, though entirely fictional.”

Films in the Exhibition

For the first time, the twelve-minute film Etel and the Moon (2023) by Marie Valentine Reagan is being shown in an exhibition context. It captures a monologue by Etel Adnan about humanity’s quest into space and her fascination with all things cosmic. In it, Adnan recites parts of her poem “A Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut,” which she wrote in 1968 in response to the death of Yuri Gagarin, and comments on the human condition in general: “If we are not careful, we could disappear. Even before we settle somewhere else.”

Marie Valentine Regan is an American filmmaker based in Paris. Her collaboration with Etel Adnan over the last five years of the artist’s life has resulted in several projects, including the short film Etel and the Moon, as well as works in progress, such as installations and a documentary about Adnan.

Etel Adnan and the artist and filmmaker Joana Hadjithomas met in the late 1990s and realized that both their families shared the same fate. Both had to leave the city of Smyrna, now İzmir. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige capture this shared ancestral experience in the fifty-minute film Ismyrna (2015), which has been screened at many film festivals. Etel Adnan’s origins, her identity between cultures, lie here.

“My mother wanted me to be born in Smyrna at all costs. But I was born in Beirut, yet she registered Smyrna as my birthplace. […] We lived in two worlds: in Beirut with the Lebanese and the children of Beirut, and we also went back to our own world. We lived in two worlds that remained separate from each other. You live in a fantasy world, and through it you become who you are. It is a part of who you are.”

Etel Adnan and the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen

In 2018, the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, under the direction of Prof. Dr. Susanne Gaensheimer, was already able to acquire paintings by Adnan, some of which belong to the artist’s impressive early oeuvre, such as the painting Persian from 1963/64, which influenced the visual appearance of the Düsseldorf exhibition as a whole. These acquisitions fit naturally into the museum’s collection, as the artist also refers to the pre-war avant-gardes such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, who, like Henri Matisse, are part of the initial holdings of the Kunstsammlung.

Adnan’s references to these three artists are manifold. For example, during her time teaching philosophy of art in California, Adnan included Kandinsky’s text On the Spiritual in Art in her teaching. About Paul Klee, whose diaries she read as soon as they were published in English in 1964, she said: “I think Klee was the first painter I fell in love with. He obsessed me. By obsessed, I mean that his paintings put me into a state of ecstasy.”

This preoccupation is visible in the form of individual resonances in the exhibition Etel Adnan. Poetry of Colors: Selected works from the holdings of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen complement the exhibition. Thus, for the first time, it is possible to see a work by Henri Matisse in direct proximity to works by Adnan.

New Acquisitions 2022

In 2022, further acquisitions were made, which are now presented in the exhibition for the first time. These include Etel Adnan’s large-format tapestry Séjour Estival, the design of which dates back to the 1960s.

Prof. Dr. Susanne Gaensheimer is particularly pleased to have succeeded in acquiring two ceramics by Simone Fattal. Etel Adnan met the artist and art critic met in Beirut in 1972, and they lived together in Paris and California until Etel Adnan’s death.

Sébastien Delot, director of the LaM – Lille métropole musee d’art moderne, art contemporain et art brut, has been enlisted as curator for the exhibition. He accompanied Etel Adnan and her work over many years. Delot curated exhibitions in France and abroad of Alberto Giacometti, Paul Klee, Isamu Noguchi, Guillermo Kuitca, and William Kentridge. He met Etel Adnan in 2002/03. This developed after 2013 into a deep friendship with Adnan and her partner Simone Fattal. This led to the solo exhibition of Etel Adnan at Zentrum Paul Klee in Berne and the Mudam Luxembourg – Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, curated by Delot. For this first retrospective of the American Lebanese artist in Germany, he has been invited to collaborate with K20 and Lenbachhaus in order to give a rich perception of her oeuvre.

An exhibition of the Lenbachhaus, Munich, and the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, curated by Sébastien Delot, Director of the LaM, Lille Métropole Musée d’art moderne d’art contemporain et d’art brut.

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