On June 28 the McKnight Foundation named Siah Armjani as the 2010 recipient of the Distinguished Artist Award—an honor that recognizes individuals “who helped lay the foundation for Minnesota’s rich cultural life” and “despite opportunities to pursue their work elsewhere, they chose to stay — and by staying, they have made a difference.” And providing a foundation for the arts in Minnesota is exactly what he did. The footings were poured for his artistic practice some 50 years ago, continuing to support an enduring edifice of public art, locally and throughout the world.
Emigrating from Tehran, Iran to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1960, Armajani studied mathematics and philosophy (primarily the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson) at Macalester College—courses that instilled in him a profound respect for history, democracy and a populist belief in the responsibility of individual actions in the public realm, major tenets of what would later become the central concerns of his artistic practice.
It was while completing his education that Armajani rented a studio in downtown Minneapolis. In his off hours he taught himself to paint, producing works of astounding power and lyricism. One of these paintings is currently hanging at the Walker Art Center in the current collection exhibition, Event Horizon. Prayer (1962) is composed of excerpts of poetry by Sufi writers Rumi and Hafez, which Armajani transcribed by hand in black ink onto canvas. Created in the abstract idiom of the time but with text instead of expressive gestures, the work connects the past to the present and the literary to the visual.
These ideas translated into his next body of work for which he is widely acclaimed. Turning again to American history, this time the history of the country’s vernacular architectural forms such as log cabins, barns, covered bridges, schoolhouses, and Quaker reading rooms, Armajani took his work out of the studio, the gallery, and the museum, and introduced it to the world. Numerous commissions led him to create pragmatic structures out of wood and metal, including bridges, houses, reading rooms, and various other dwellings (both ephemeral and permanent) as well as free-standing sculpture. Not interested in building monuments to his ego (or anyone else’s), he has explained, “I am interested in the nobility of usefulness. My intention is to build open, available, useful, common, public gathering places—gathering places that are neighborly.”
And what could be more neighborly (and visionary) than connecting two city parks long divided as a result of injudicious urban planning? In 1988, Armjani completed one of his most important commissions, the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge. This 375-foot steel-truss construction spans 15 lanes of traffic, connecting the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with the oasis that is Loring Park. The bridge has become an icon for the city as well as a metaphor for the peaceful coexistence of the diverse background and interests of the population.
Perhaps in addition to “artist,” we might more aptly describe Mr. Armajani as a bridge builder who brings individuals together, both locally and globally, for the common good. It takes a strong dose of optimism to think this way, but his work is built on it, and I am convinced.
On a personal note and on behalf of my colleagues, I want to congratulate Siah for receiving this award and for being such a good friend to the Walker over the years. It is rare to come across a person with his profound intelligence, warmth, wit, and generosity. He has given so much to this community, and has taught us so much—we are forever grateful.