Untitled #209

Collected Works: Art


Untitled #209

by Etel Adnan

View an image of the artwork

Four bands of blue unfold across a square canvas. A golden yolk sinks to the floor of the frame’s faintest level. Fragilely fastened, the circle’s fraying protein looks to be on the verge of dissipation. Each watery tier is supported by the palest of powdery grounds. They are all built up from one or two layers of paint, their boundary lines imperfectly straight. Were a mirror to be placed to one side, this unevenness would be offensively magnified.

It is possible that the work may have been completed over the course of a single sitting: perhaps a day, an hour, or a matter of minutes. It is one work in a series of spare, concise images, regularly pierced by similar spheres of cool gold and luminous violet. Some loosely resemble abstract landscapes; others bear closer comparison to the amorphous contents of a petri dish. Adnan often inscribes poetry against watercolour, but here all words are cast away. Busying, burying text is forsaken for buoyant blue.

Given the work’s lightness of rendition, it may easily be mistaken for a meanness of meaning. We may write it off with a cursory glance, dismissing it as simple stripes and a dot dashed off, rewarding only the most fleeting of looks. But the painting poses us with a nagging problem, one that we can either attempt to unpack, or close our eyes to in frustration. We are helpless to see a sublime sun cascading downwards to reach the horizon, drawing in the deep night sky as it disappears.

The division of the heavens into layers brings the whole image to the front of the painting’s plane. With each step and new shade, we trip over the organic weave of the surface, snagging on the brushstrokes. Far from flimsy, the work’s weightlessness renders it uncooperative with our gaze. A neat, figurative explanation does not seem fit. Rather than fighting to find a solid form within the shifting tones, we should simply let the quartet of hues sweep over us, sitting back to enjoy the cool, azure breeze.

Words by Elizabeth Brown

More to discover

You can visit Etel Adnan's official website here, and read a post about the artist by Nana Asfour for The Paris Review. Excerpts of a book of essays on Etel Adnan, edited by Lisa Suhair Majaj & Amal Amireh, can be read on Google Books.

Lynne Tillman has interviewed Adnan for Bidoun, as have Lisa Robertson for BOMB Magazine, Vera Kern for Qantara, and Anna Coatman for The Royal Academy of Arts.

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