One Work: Etel Adnan’s “Untitled”

Writing in 1986, Etel Adnan recalled the moment she grasped the role of Mount Tamalpais in her life. Asked in front of a television camera to name the most important person she’d ever met, she’d replied, “a mountain.” It was then that she realized the subject framed by her window in Sausalito, California, was not just a source of inspiration but “at the center of [her] being.”

The Guggenheim exhibition “Light’s New Measure” includes forty-eight works Adnan produced between 1960 and 2020, offering an opportunity to trace the development of motifs in the late artist’s visual language. The mountain appears more than a dozen times. Since the late ’70s, when she moved to Sausalito, Adnan painted the landmark tirelessly, and in her old age, when she lived in Paris, she conjured it from memory. Each time, she attended to the time of day, the weather, and her own psychological state, all of which informed her stylistic approach. Her formal choices were also affective; she referred to colors as “metaphysical beings,” vested with emotional value and agency.

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In Untitled (1984), Adnan formed the mountainous peak out of geometric blocks. Using a palette knife, she smoothed over patches of seafoam, aqua, and velvet green paint. With the same tool, she agitated the gloomy skies, which grow darker from left to right, and flicker with glints of white clouds or fog. At the bottom right, a sloping stack of vertical green blocks threatens to slide into the blue water. Here, Adnan’s palette echoes the natural world—other depictions involve faint lavenders and fiery pastels—but just the same, the slabs of color fuse to create an evocative mood. As the mountain surfaces, so too does a feeling of impermanence and suspense, before the heavy sky cracks open, and before carefully constructed stacks give way to more abstract forms.


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