ETEL ADNAN, Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 35 × 27 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

Etel Adnan

White Cube
Hong Kong Lebanon

A burst of strong California sun is illuminating White Cube Hong Kong this summer in the form of Etel Adnan’s striking abstract oil canvases, which dot the two floors of the gallery’s pristine space. Golden yellows, aquamarine blues, lime greens and fiery reds are among the planes of saturated hues forming her unique landscapes, particularly of northern California’s Mount Tamalpais near Sausalito, where she was based until recently for more than five decades.

Acclaimed as a writer and painter, the Beirut-born nonagenarian first gained recognition for her literature, which spoke of her Arab heritage and the migration and displacement of people. Such topics were drawn from her immigrant parents’ experiences that had led them from their country of birth to Lebanon: for her mother, it was the burning down of her hometown Smyrna, in 1922; and for her Turkish father, it was the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, under which he had served as a top official, also in 1922. Instinctually drawn to expressing in words, Adnan penned her first poems in Beirut at the age of 19, writing about the sea. Such reflections of her environment would also appear in her paintings later on.

Adnan’s career as an artist began in 1958, during a stint in California when she was a professor at the Dominican College in San Rafael (now Dominican University of California). Encouraged by painter Ann O’ Hanlon, who was the head of the art department at school, Adnan began experimenting with art-making, first working on paper in an accordion-book format, which incorporated either English text, Arabic script, symbols or vibrant shades of watercolor. Soon moving on to oil paint, Adnan started creating sweeps of color using a palette knife, much like the abstractions of French painter Nicolas de Staël. Typically painted in one day on small-scale canvases—which she would work on placed flat on a table—Adnan’s early compositions comprise an amalgamation of color juxtapositions and a stacking of square structures that proved quite formalistic.

ETEL ADNANUntitled, 2015, oil on canvas, 27 × 35 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

ETEL ADNANUntitled, 2015, oil on canvas, 35 × 27 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

One of Adnan’s greatest fixations was Mount Tamalpais, which she began depicting in her paintings in 1963 and is still an imagery she refers to in her current work. In these semi-abstract landscape paintings, the squares from her early canvases are elongated to resemble Tamalpais. Subtle gradations of color capture images of the mountain under various intensities of daylight, while expressing her sense of freedom and joy in using a spectrum of shades and hues.

Though Adnan is now based in Paris, the 18 untitled canvases that are on view at White Cube—made between 2014 and 2015—provide a glimpse into the artist’s perceptions of her previous environment. Some of these works invite visitors to relish the mountain that has captivated the artist’s imagination for over 50 years, while others depict a serene view looking out toward the water and into the horizon. Yet another set of paintings appears to be harkening back to her earliest style of portraying geometric shapes and structures, which could also be influenced by her current situation of living in a metropolitan city.

Displayed like a horizontal ribbon across the two rooms of White Cube, the compactness of Adnan’s canvases within the space, and the richness of their contrasting colors set against the gallery’s white walls, are seductive and seem to beckon visitors to move in for a closer look. While the color combinations still keep the images crisp and professional, a detailed observation provides the viewer with an intimate connection to the creator, as traces of Adnan’s palette knife become apparent. Further inspection shows that the depicted forms are a little uneven and the textures of the paint vary just slightly, which all contribute to experiencing the raw energy under which these works were made. At 90 years old, Adnan’s vivid recollections and dreams of the West Coast have helped to bring a piece of California with her to Paris and, as a result, have allowed us in Hong Kong to also enjoy the warmth and joy of the Golden State.

Installation view of “Etel Adnan” at White Cube, Hong Kong, 2015. Courtesy White Cube. 

“Etel Adnan” is on view at White Cube Hong Kong until August 29, 2015.

Sylvia Tsai is associate editor at ArtAsiaPacific.