Etel Adnan: creative shape-shifter, acclaimed author, and devotee of colour

Selected by Michèle Lamy as a creative leader as part of Wallpaper’s 25th Anniversary Issue ‘5x5’ project, Etel Adnan has cemented her status as a potent voice of contemporary Arab-American culture, and an artist of the world

Image of Foret, 2019
Etel Adnan, Forêt, 2019, tapestry. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Ollie Hammick)
(Image credit: TBC)

It takes a certain vision to honour the beauty of the world as powerfully as probing its most violent facets. Over a seven decade career, 96-year-old artist Etel Adnan has proved that to shape the next generation, art must often shift its shape.

Through visual art, poetry, journalism, prose and plays, she has become a potent voice of contemporary Arab-American culture, author of acclaimed war literature, a devotee of colour, and creator of vivid elemental abstract art. 

Adnan was born in Beirut in 1925 to a Greek mother and Syrian father. In 1955, the artist moved from Paris – where she had studied philosophy – to America. There, she attended UC Berkeley and Harvard, and taught philosophy of art and aesthetics at Dominican College in San Rafael, California. 

Image of Untitled, 2018 Oil on canvas

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2018 Oil on canvas. © the artist.  © White Cube 

(Image credit: TBC)

Following a conscious decision to stop writing in French in the wake of the Algerian War, Adnan turned to colour field abstract painting for its immediacy, potency and ability to capture emotion. ‘Abstract art was the equivalent of poetic expression. I didn’t need to use words, but colours and lines. I didn’t need to belong to a language-oriented culture but to an open form of expression,’ she said in 1996. 

Her work is constructed with bold blocks of colour, often executed in oil paint – from tube to canvas – with a rigid swipe of a palette knife. As the artist succinctly put it in 2018 during her solo exhibition at SFMoMA: ‘I like discovering new colours… it is like finding a new instrument if you are a musician. Colour inspires me.’ 

Image of Hardback leporello with watercolour on paper

Etel Adnan Key Signs, 2017. Hardback leporello with watercolour on paper. © the artist. © White Cube

(Image credit: Ollie Hammick)

Her visual art has also spanned drawing, film, ceramic art and tapestry; her influences are equally as wide-ranging. In the 1970s, California’s Mount Tamalpais became her muse and the subject to which she dedicated numerous paintings and poems. Adnan later discovered Japanese leporellos, accordion-folded sketchbooks within which she could blend the verbal and visual. On 8 October 2021, her expansive career will be celebrated in a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim New York, ‘Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure’. 

Adnan has never had an exclusive relationship with any single discipline, place, language or tradition. But her nomadic existence and fluid practice has only cemented her position as an artist of the world.

Image of Brume Matinale 2019

Etel Adnan Brume Matinale 2019 Tapestry. © the artist. © White Cube 

(Image credit: Ollie Hammick)


Etel Adnan: ‘Light’s New Measure’, 8 October 2021 – 10 January 2022, Guggenheim New York,

A version of this article appears in Wallpaper’s October 2021, 25th Anniversary Issue (W*270), on newsstands now and available to subscribers – 12 digital issues for $12/£12/€12.
Meet more creative leaders of the future nominated by Michèle Lamy here.

Harriet Lloyd-Smith was the Arts Editor of Wallpaper*, responsible for the art pages across digital and print, including profiles, exhibition reviews, and contemporary art collaborations. She started at Wallpaper* in 2017 and has written for leading contemporary art publications, auction houses and arts charities, and lectured on review writing and art journalism. When she’s not writing about art, she’s making her own.