Siah Armajani has been making art since the late 1950s. In conjunction with the artist’s first major US retrospective—opening September 9 at the Walker Art Center—Visual Arts intern Sebastian Eising examines Armajani’s artistic practice over six decades. Taking works of art as points of departure, the following discussion offers insight into the life and career of the Twin Cities–based artist.
Following a political coup in Siah Armajani’s home country of Iran, power shifted from the popularly-elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, to an autocratic monarchy. As life grew unsafe for the young and democratically-minded artist, he boarded a Twin Cities–bound flight from Tehran in 1960.
Made while Armajani was a student in Tehran, Wall (1958) is intimately bound to both his early political activism and his experience of walking through the city. The piece of twine visible in the work is accompanied by the phrase “follow this line”—the artist’s recollection of children marking the city’s walls with pencils as they walked through the streets on the way home from school. The line in this collage meanders through various architectural elements, from the traditional arch at the center of the composition to the black and white squares that recall the checkered tiles of traditional coffeehouses. However, this playful visual journey takes a political turn with an almost hidden inscription at top right: “Dr. Mossadegh Street,” a reference to the toppled democratic government of the Iranian leader.
Armajani landed in the Twin Cities to attend Macalester College, where his uncle, Yahya Armajani, was chair of the history department. With his coursework, Armajani studied art and philosophy. His understanding of the world around him was shaped by the writings of German philosopher Martin Heidegger and American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. In addition, he discovered the paintings of American Abstract Expressionism thanks to his professor Jerry Rudquist. “I would go to his office and pull out one image at a time,” Armajani has said. “I could not figure out how anyone could think that way. I was so amused, it was beyond comprehension.”
Armajani supplemented his studies with frequent visits to the Walker Art Center, eventually submitting two works to the museum’s 1962 Biennial of Painting and Sculpture. Prayer (1962), roughly six feet by four feet and densely packed with fragments of poetry scribbled in Farsi, took cues from Ab-Ex by playing with visual rhythm and working in less representational terms. After being exhibited in the Walker’s galleries, the painting entered the museum’s permanent collection. For a modest price of $500, the Walker became the first institution to acquire Armajani’s work.
Starting in the late 1960s, Armajani strengthened his ties with other Twin Cities institutions. He joined the faculty at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where he met fellow instructor and artist Barry Le Va, who introduced Armajani to the work of Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Lawrence Weiner, and other New York conceptual artists. He also worked closely with the University of Minnesota’s cutting-edge Hybrid Computer Laboratory to create a number of computer-generated films and other works that take the form of dot-matrix printouts.
In the Kynaston McShine–curated exhibition Information at the Museum of Modern Art (July 2–September 20, 1970), Armajani made formative contributions to conceptual art with two such works: A Number Between Zero and One (1969) and North Dakota Tower (1969). In both instances, Armajani sought to give physical presence to seemingly invisible phenomena—in the first case, the interval between the numbers zero and one (or to be precise 10-205,714,071), and in the second, the height of a tower that would cast a shadow east-to-west across the entire state of North Dakota.
He also experimented with idea-based art that took on a hybrid form of sculpture and architecture, creating the outdoor, site-specific Bridge over Tree for the Walker Art Center’s 9 Artists/9 Spaces exhibition. The bridge was more propositional than functional: while it provided a path over a small pine tree, the terrain it spanned was in reality more easily crossed on the ground. Unfortunately, the exhibition was riddled with problems ranging from vandalism to the removal of a William Wegman work by the FBI. Even as one of the show’s least controversial works, environmentalists threatened to burn down Armajani’s sculpture if the pine tree below the bridge died. The night before the show’s opening, as the tree showed signs of browning, Walker curator Richard Koshalek revived the branches with a coat of green spray paint.
Weaving together diverse inspirations ranging from American vernacular architecture to Russian Constructivism, Armajani’s artistic contributions are perhaps most recognized in terms of his public art projects. In 1988, The Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, today an icon of the Twin Cities, opened alongside the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The airy steel structure crosses over sixteen lanes of highway to connect the Garden to Loring Park.
In a number of ways, the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge epitomizes conceptual through lines found in other areas of Armajani’s practice. It employs elements of both sculpture and architecture and challenges the notion that fine art should not be functional. To paraphrase the John Ashbery–commissioned poem that runs along the bridge, the structure is not merely a conduit but a place. Beyond a passive crossway, Armajani intended the bridge to allow for an active contemplation of place-making.
Armajani continued to make public art in cities throughout Europe and the United States (perhaps most notable is his Bridge, Tower, Cauldron commission for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta). In the Twin Cities, Armajani created a number of works that have been folded into the daily fabric of its inhabitants (including two skyways in downtown Minneapolis). His Gazebo for Four Anarchists: Mary Nardini, Irma Sanchini, William James Sidis, Carlo Valdinoci (1993) is sited in Loring Park, near one end of the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge.
The gazebo, a covered pavilion often found in parks or gardens, is an architectural form that Armajani has long referenced in his work. Instead of representing sites for leisure, however, his versions serve as platforms that pay tribute to revolutionary individuals in history. This gazebo is similar in conception and construction to a model in the Walker’s collection, Gazebo for One Anarchist: Luigi Galleani (1991). The work memorializes Luigi Galleani (1861–1931), an Italian-born anarchist who fled his home country and traveled the world espousing his views before finding refuge in Barre, Vermont, an immigrant community of quarry workers. There, Galleani established an anarchist newsletter that advocated for the overthrow of tyrants and government institutions. He was later deported to Italy.
Considering its subjects’ histories (Mary Nardini was once called “the queen of the anarchists” by the press), Armajani’s cage-like structures more closely resemble prison cells than pastoral gazebos, pointing to the ever-present abstract and political qualities in his work.
In contrast to the open and interactive nature of his outdoor public works of art, Fallujah (2004–2005) is surrounded by walls of glass, providing only visual access to the environment contained within. “I have enclosed the sculptures so that people cannot enter,” the artist has explained. “Outside of these enclosed spaces, we are out of place, as though banished, estranged, expelled.” Named for the city decimated during the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004, this work responds to the loss of life and home caused by the Iraq War. The sculpture’s rocking horse, lightbulb, and flames were inspired by Pablo Picasso’s mural-scale painting Guernica (1937), which famously denounced the atrocities of war. Taken together, Armajani’s arrangement of glass rooms and abandoned possessions provides a stark reminder of the fragility of human life in the context of war.
This large-scale drawing on Mylar is part of Armajani’s Tomb series (1972–present), a series of sculptures and works on paper dedicated to influential figures in history ranging from Martin Heidegger to Frank O’Hara. Reminiscent of the artist’s early works on paper and cloth, which employ a loose, Farsi script, as well as his later architectural works, Written Minneapolis presents, perhaps, a self-portrait of Armajani in his adopted hometown (the artist has noted that “the last tomb” represents his own).
In his resolute solitude, one might compare Armajani to Heidegger. The German philosopher was known to do much of his theorizing deep in the Black Forest, where he carefully crafted his view of the world. Having avoided relocation to New York or Los Angeles throughout his career, perhaps Armajani has found a sense of place in the Twin Cities similar to that of Heidegger’s Black Forest. In his Minneapolis studio, away from his childhood home of Tehran and isolated from the centers of American art, the artist continues his exploration of philosophy, architecture, mathematics, and beyond.