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Siah Armajani, sculptor of communal spaces, dies at 81
Siah Armajani, Utensils (detail), 1975, aluminium, various sizes. Siah Armajani: Spaces for the Public. Spaces for Democracy. (2019), NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

by Holland Cotter

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Siah Armajani, an Iranian-born American artist whose architecturally scaled, politically inflected public sculptures have been internationally influential, even as he kept a low profile in the art world, died Aug. 27 at his home in Minneapolis, a city he had lived and worked in for 60 years. He was 81.

The cause was heart disease, said Olga Viso, a former director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which showed Armajani early on and in 2018 helped organize a long-overdue career survey.

“I am interested in the nobility of usefulness,” Armajani said in a 1990 profile in The New Yorker. “My intention is to build open, available, useful, common, public gathering places. Gathering places that are neighborly.”

Some of these communal places took the form of bridges, either fully functional (one spans an interstate highway in Minneapolis), or purely sculptural and symbolic. Many of the designs were based on the traditional American covered bridge, a rural structure meant to offer both passage and protection.

He also built gardens and reading rooms dedicated to political figures he admired, including Emma Goldman and Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. For gallery display, he designed cenotaphs honoring literary figures like Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara and Neema Yooshiji, a Persian poet who, Armajani wrote in a 2014 exhibition catalog, “took poetry out of the ritual of the court and placed it among the people and masses.”

His late-career projects were increasingly topical and critical. His 2004-2005 “Falluja” was a protest against the United States war on Iraq. In 2017, he created a series of sculptural installations called “Seven Rooms of Hospitality” dedicated to refugees, detainees, migrant workers and other groups increasingly unwelcome in the U.S. in the current political era, in contrast to the openness that he, as a young immigrant artist, had so valued.

Siavash Armajani was born July 10, 1939, in Tehran, the third of four children, to Aga Khan Armajani, a prosperous textile merchant, and Saltanat (Bahrami) Armajani, a homemaker. Although raised Christian, he remembered being immersed in an Islamic culture with a strong infusion of Sufism.

His interest in art began early, leading to painting lessons at a Presbyterian missionary school. So did a passion for politics, which he claimed to have inherited from a grandmother who had been an anti-imperialistic activist in her youth. His first independent artworks, made as a teenager in the 1950s, were poster-size collages protesting a government coup that had ousted Iran’s democratically elected premier, Mohammed Mossadegh, and cemented the power of the shah.

The collages combined Islamic religious imagery, quotes from Persian popular songs and pro-democracy slogans, a mix intended to deflect quick attention by censors. (He titled some of these works “Night Letters,” referring to anti-government writing passed around secretly in earlier revolutionary times.) But his family worried that the subversive content was all too clear and in 1960, for his own safety, they packed him off to the United States.

He landed in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where his father’s younger brother, Yahya, taught history at Macalester College. Armajani enrolled in the school, studying mathematics and sociology, while majoring in philosophy. He was particularly attracted to American thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey who, in Armajani’s words, insisted “that all ideas be tested according to their applicability to life.”

He also studied modern Western art history and found, in the early 20th century Russian Constructivist movement, a model he had begun to adopt for himself: the artist as worker-citizen.

For him, art, science and philosophy proved to be complementary disciplines, as evidenced by his pioneering experiments, in the late 1960s, with computer-generated projects. In 1969, while teaching at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he wrote a Fortran program to plot the dimensions of a tower large enough to cast a shadow over the entire state of North Dakota. (If constructed, the tower would have been 18 miles tall.)

This and other math-based propositions were hybrids of technical logic and cosmological thinking, utopian but with a dark cast that would permeate his later work.

Much of this later work emerged directly from his fascination with, and measured affection for, American vernacular culture. In 1967, he became a U.S. citizen. The following year, he participated in an architectural renewal project organized by Jackson, Minnesota, a town with 19th-century commercial buildings that had grown derelict after malls sucked business away. Assisted by students from a local high school, he spent four years studying, documenting and restoring the town.

During this time he began to produce, from scraps of balsa wood and cardboard, the first of what would eventually be more than 1,000 tabletop architectural models, inspired by and riffing on the Midwestern structures around him: houses, barns, shops, bridges. He called this lexicon of imagined designs “Dictionary for Building.”

The series was ostensibly an homage, through architectural sculpture, to everyday life. Yet in each model something was off. Walls were missing; doors were blocked; staircases dead-ended. The series was closer to being a dissection of domesticity than a distillation of it. Designs that seemed to promise the stability implied by the idea of “home” gave you structures with complicated stories to tell.

Similar complications were built into Armajani’s full-size public sculptures, among them “Bridge Over Tree” (1970). Reconstructed in 2019 in Brooklyn Bridge Park when the Walker retrospective traveled to the Met Breuer, the piece was a walk-in version of a covered footbridge with trussed sides, a shingle roof and a small, steep arch at its center. Set in an open field, the bridge connected nothing and led nowhere, but the arch was purposeful: it sheltered a small, live evergreen tree. The sculpture read as both an impractical rural idyll and a rebuke to a city (and a nation) that has historically plowed nature in the name of “development.”

Several of Armajani’s public works are on permanent view. Among them are the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis, built in 1988 and refurbished in 2018; an installation at the World Financial Center’s promenade in Manhattan (a collaboration with the sculptor Scott Burton and the architect Cesar Pelli completed in 1989) and “Floating Poetry Room” in Amsterdam. He also designed the Cauldron for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Two of his computer-generated pieces were included in the 1970 “Information” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, a groundbreaking showcase of then-new Conceptualism. In 2018, he was one of seven artists whose art was installed at MoMA in protest of President Donald Trump’s travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries.

Armajani, who is survived by his wife of 54 years, Barbara Bauer Armajani, and by a brother, Robert Bahman-Armajani, is most accurately described in hyphenate terms: citizen-exile, maker-philosopher, idealist-doubter. And he was an ethicist to the core.

At the present moment, when the racist and imperialist messages of our old political monuments are becoming clear, and ideas about how to create new ones are in flux, he is a useful guide.

“I think in a real democracy you should not look up to anything,” he said in the 1990 The New Yorker profile. “Everything should be at eye level. And in this particular democracy you don’t need heroes.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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