by Lune Ames
May 10, 2019
“Siah Armajani: Follow This Line” is the first comprehensive retrospective for an artist who has had a critical role in shaping 20th and 21st century public art. Initially on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and now at the Met Breuer, the show spans Armajani’s 60-plus-year career and includes more than 100 works, many of them never previously exhibited. In addition to sculpture, architectural models, paintings, drawings, and videos, more intimate works of intricate calligraphy, poetry, embroidery, mathematical equations, and computer programming abound. Armajani’s sources range from rural American architecture to Russian Constructivism, and from Heidegger’s phenomenology to Thomas Jefferson’s ideal that a family dwelling is an architectural expression of social democracy. “Follow This Line” allows us to see more clearly the extent of Armajani’s concerns, and to understand that his expressions of them are not only conceptual, but are intended to be practical and to promote action.
Armajani’s work grew out of his political activism. Though long based in Minneapolis, he was born in Tehran, Iran in 1939 and was raised in a Christian family within Islamic culture. He studied Persian calligraphy and as a young man participated in political protests. His anti-government collages of 1957, sometimes called Night Letters (several are on view), incorporated Islamic religious images, Persian songs, and democratic sayings in densely packed text that flowed around the page. The layers were meant to conceal the letters’ political content, but still his family grew worried for his safety. In 1960 they sent Armajani to live with his uncle, a professor at Macalester College in Minneapolis. There, he studied philosophy, sociology, mathematics, and art history.
Each of his works of public art (represented in the exhibition with videos) acts as an agora where people can voice their opinions. In tandem with “Follow This Line,” Armajani’s Bridge over Tree (1970) has been sponsored by the Public Art Fund and rebuilt at Brooklyn Bridge Park, where it will remain on view through the end of September, its first restaging in 50 years. The 91-foot-long span consists of open sides and a shingled roof, with stairs climbing over a small evergreen tree midway across. The concept of a bridge is upended: is it still a bridge if it is flush against the Earth? It also asks us to reconsider our relationship to nature: to what extent can we dwell on Earth without bulldozing, but rather building around?
The function of prepositions like over, above, below, and around is further challenged in Armajani’s Dictionary for Building (1974-1975/1976), which comprises 150 wood and cardboard maquettes. Each one marks a particular location in his language of home: a window above a door, a door under the stairs. Lacking proper walls, and with stairways leading nowhere, they blur the lines of inside and outside, and challenge the logic of building. Armajani began constructing these maquettes while working with high school students in rural Jackson, Minnesota on the town’s restoration project, and the local, agrarian architecture infused his ideas. He describes a similar tracing of points in a 1983 essay on the farmhouse featured in Design Quarterly: “Each structure as a tool is in line of reference from one to another: from roof to arch, arch to wall, wall to chair, chair to table, table to porch, porch to fence, fence to location and location to places near and far from the house. Each one implies the other one.” This sense of place is a driving force throughout this cardboard neighborhood of deliberately puzzling maquettes, expressing both urgency and contentment.
The line connecting the components of dwelling in Dictionary for Building creates a textual tension with Armajani’s early calligraphy, traced printed texts, and crossed out or censored texts. In Effaced Dictionary (1968), a dictionary, opened to the letter P section, has had all its definitions entirely blacked out, leaving only the words, devoid of their meanings. With Two Dimensional Dictionary of Things and Non Things (1960), Armajani cut out all the images from a Merriam-Webster dictionary and placed them in alphabetical order, eliminating all words. The dictionary becomes hieroglyphic. The works call to mind Does Writing Have a Future? by Vilém Flusser, the treatise where the philosopher describes the visionary power of numbers, which he concludes have been long overshadowed by letters.
Elsewhere, Armajani riffs on this theme as well, examining the power of numbers in his computer-generated works. In Tree of Babel (1970), Armajani generated only factorials that could be arranged into triangles, and which gradually increased in size, permitting a three-dimensional vision to be represented in a two-dimensional surface. A Number Between One and Zero (1969) makes the conceptual three-dimensional. With this computer-generated work, he transformed the scientific notation of the interval between zero and one into 25,974 sheets of paper stacked inside a nine-foot high, 500-pound steel structure. “It is place that makes ordinary things particular,” he writes in the aforementioned Design Quarterly essay. Armajani is devoted to illuminating the particular, the granulations of language and home that both dwell within and construct each other.
This devotion to the particular stems from a rooted sense of home. In Manifesto: Public Sculpture in the Context of American Democracy (1968-78) Armajani stated that: “we are here because home is here and no other place.” The power of “here-ness,” as wherever you are, is profoundly political. It demands responsibility and action. “Follow This Line” acts as a map that does not lead anywhere precise, other than to the moment you are in. We can choose how we wish to follow, whether chronologically, conceptually, or mathematically. But along the way, Armajani interrupts our path and questions our inclinations.
Siah Armajani: Follow This Line remains on view through June 2, 2019 at the Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, New York.
Bridge Over Tree a project of The Public Art Fund, remains on view through September 29, 2019 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, 334 Burman Street, Brooklyn, New York.
Lune Ames (Class of 2020) was raised in the Midwest and is now based in New Jersey and New York City.