- Dennis Raverty
American sculptor of Iranian birth. Armajani studied in Iran at the University of Tehran before immigrating to the USA in 1960 to complete his studies in philosophy at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN, where he settled permanently. He became a naturalized US citizen in 1967. Armajani used the language of vernacular architecture in his sculpture to create spaces into which the viewer moves, sometimes being literally surrounded by the sculpture. Cellar doors, back stairways, loading docks, benches, bridges, porches, gazebos, and other such homely architectural elements are the inspiration for his sculptures and installations. Early in Armajani’s career he was on the faculty of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where he lectured on philosophy and conceptual art, but he left teaching in 1975 to concentrate exclusively on his sculpture.
Armajani stated repeatedly that his intention was to create a “neighborly” space, that is, a space that brings people together. His public sculpture is perhaps best thought of as social sculpture, in the sense meant by postwar German artist Joseph Beuys: a community-seeking, politically progressive, public art. Armajani’s many commissions include the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis (1988) and a garden and waterfront sculpture designed in collaboration with Scott Burton and César Pelli for Battery Park in the southern tip of Manhattan (1988). He was asked to design a sculpture for the 1996 centennial of the modern Olympics in Atlanta, GA, his largest work at the time, which included a bridge spanning a highway as well as a sculptural cauldron to contain the Olympic torch. His international public commissions include works in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Spain, where he is perhaps better known than in the USA.
Armajani considered himself a populist and advocated a breakdown between the art object and the viewing subject into one unitary experience, which links his work to the aesthetics of early 20th-century pragmatist John Dewey. Although he had virtually no formal training as an artist, his training in philosophy was a major influence in his work. Besides Dewey, his mature sculpture owes a great intellectual debt to German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin (particularly Benjamin’s Arcades Project, which inspired Armajani’s later glass sculptures), as well as the more recent neo-pragmatism of Richard Rorty.
For a number of years Armajani worked intermittently on what appear to be small, roughly constructed three-dimensional “sketches.” He titled these collectively the Dictionary for Building (1965–1985). They are small works made of cardboard, balsawood, little boxes, spools, scraps of plastic, or other humble materials; the pieces number in the hundreds (all are now in Geneva, Mus. A. Mod. & Contemp.). These served as the prototypes from which most of his later work was derived.
Armajani’s early experiences under the repressive regime of the Shah of Iran gave the artist a lifelong disdain for monarchs and demagogues. This disdain also drew him to the philosophy of anarchism, and several of his sculptural installations made during the late 1980s and 1990s have been dedicated to obscure Italian American anarchists from the first decades of the 20th century. In fact, many of his works are dedicated to his intellectual heroes, who, besides the anarchists, include people as diverse as Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, El Lissitzky, Edgar Allan Poe, Jalal al-Din Rumi, and Noam Chomsky. Many of his sculptures and installations are dedicated to these heroes in their titles, linking his work, at least conceptually, to the traditional function of sculptural monuments of the past.
After 1999 Armajani expanded his range with large two-dimensional work in colored pencil inspired by traditional Persian miniatures and the painting of early 20th-century proto-Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. At the same time, he developed a series of large, enigmatic studio sculptures characterized by walls of transparent glass, giving the viewer visual access to the interior but barring him from entering the sculpture directly. In these somber, almost haunted sculptures, Armajani addressed his feelings of alienation, especially in works made since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the USA. His mournful Glass Room for an Exile (2002), Emerson’s Parlor (2005), or Edgar Allan Poe’s Study (2008) expressed his sense of feeling uprooted and these works are in marked contrast with his earlier, more optimistic public sculptures.
His later works are collectively entitled Tombs, a series of elegiac, sculptural cenotaphs dedicated to his lifelong heroes, such as Adorno, Whitman, and Heidegger. They also undoubtedly represent the elderly artist’s coming to terms with his own sense of mortality. The last in the series of Tombs, the artist claimed in an interview, will be his own.
- Kardon, Janet. Siah Armajani: Bridges, Houses, Communal Spaces, Dictionary for Building. Philadelphia, U. PA, ICA, 1985. Exhibition catalog.
- Princenthal, N. “The Sculpture/Constructions of Siah Armajani.” Art in America [cont. as A. America & Elsewhere; A. America] 74 (Mar 1986): 126–133.
- Tompkins, C. “Profiles: Siah Armajani: Open, Available, Useful.” New Yorker, 66 (Mar 19, 1990): 48–72.
- Raverty, D. “Locale, Memory, and Exile in Recent Work of Siah Armajani.” Art Papers, 28 (Sept 2004): 28–33.
- Siah Armajani: An Ingenious World. Edited by Ziba Ardalan. London, Parisol Unit for Contemporary Art, 2013. Exhibition catalog.
- Siah Armajani: The Tomb Series. Essay by S. Armajani. New York, Alex Grey Associates, 2014. Exhibition catalog.