MINNEAPOLIS-BASED artist Siah Armajani’s first retrospective in the United States, “Follow This Line,” takes its title from a childhood memory: in prerevolutionary Iran, Armajani and his friends would draw lines on the walls of buildings with their pencils as they walked home from school, creating graffiti marking their routes. The exhibition—which traveled to the Met Breuer from the Walker Art Center—also traces a path, through the artist’s six-decade career, from his early experimentation with language and text to the architectural sculptures for which he is best known.
Armajani has devoted much of his career to the production of public art, drawing on multivalent strains of utopian thought, from the aesthetic theories of the Bauhaus and Soviet Constructivism to anarchism and transcendentalism. References to philosophers abound in his titles and texts, including familiar names from Continental traditions such as Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin as well as theorists of American democracy like Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey. As Armajani described in a 1968 manifesto: “Public art is a logical continuation of the modern movement and the enlightenment, which was tempered and conditioned by the American Revolution.”
Born in 1939, Armajani grew up in Tehran in an upper-class Christian family. As a teenager, he was active in the student movement protesting against the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who consolidated power following a CIA-backed coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. At the same time, Armajani studied drawing and painting and began creating text collages based on political posters and “night letters,” pamphlets used by activists to spread political messages. “Follow This Line” includes several of these early works. In them, Armajani uses lines of Persian poetry or quotes from the Quran, written longhand in Farsi, to create wandering patterns on graph paper, canvases, pieces of wood, and even jackets and dress shirts. The texts form elegant looping patterns, gesturing to the rich traditions of calligraphy and aniconic art in the Islamic world.
At his father’s insistence, Armajani left Iran in 1960 to study at Macalester College in St. Paul. He has lived in Minnesota ever since. By the end of the ’60s, he had shifted away from painting and calligraphy toward conceptual work. Experimenting with mathematics and early computers, he devised architectural projects that were theoretically feasible but could not be practically executed. With nods to Vladimir Tatlin’s unrealized Monument to the Third International (1919–20), A Fairly Tall Tower (1969) consists of a typescript proposal and schematic drawings for a 24,000-mile-high tower reaching into space. North Dakota Tower (1969) similarly adopts the format of an engineering plan, this one proposing a tower whose shadow would stretch across the entire length of the state. A string of equations scrawled in the margins makes clear that Armajani has done his homework: the tower would have to be eighteen miles tall. The incongruity between the obvious absurdity of these projects and the exacting level of technical detail he includes gives the works a wry humor.
Around the same time, Armajani was also studying the Fortran computer programming language at the Control Data Institute in Minneapolis. He used a computer at the Hybrid Computer Laboratory at the University of Minnesota to make a series of short 16mm films in which white geometric shapes, words, and numbers flash against black backgrounds. Between the simple animations appear cryptic phrases that suggest both command functions and philosophical aphorisms: actual entity is not anything by itself, one reads. In another project from this period, A Number Between Zero and One (1969), included in the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark exhibition “Information” (1970), Armajani constructed a metal container for a nine-foot-tall stack of paper printed with a seemingly endless string of digits representing an infinitesimal fraction. The rows of zeroes recall the decorative sequences of Arabic script in Armajani’s earlier work, in which the patterns created rival the importance of the information conveyed.
In the mid-1970s, Armajani began exploring the vernacular language of architecture. For his ambitious series “Dictionary for Building” (1974–75) he constructed over a thousand architectural maquettes in cardboard and balsa wood depicting isolated architectural features—such as columns, stairwells, and windows—or pieces of furniture based on his memories of those he had seen in real life. As the title suggests, the work functions as a lexicon of elements that can be referenced, combined, and assembled into complete structures, echoing Armajani’s earlier experiments with language. Dozens are on display in the exhibition, sitting like mini-dioramas on a long white plinth.
Since the 1980s, Armajani has used this “dictionary” as a point of departure for a number of public sculptures combining elements drawn from Constructivist and various forms of pastoral architecture. The show includes several detailed preparatory models for these public projects, including a cagelike gazebo dedicated to an Italian anarchist (Gazebo for One Anarchist: Luigi Galleani, 1991) and an elevated garden (Persian Garden #1, 1983). Other models demonstrate Armajani’s long-standing fascination with bridges, structures that simultaneously represent utilitarian feats of engineering and serve as symbols of connectedness. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Public Art Fund has reconstructed Armajani’s 1970 sculpture Bridge Over Tree in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Originally conceived as a temporary installation for the Walker, the work consists of a narrow covered bridge placed on the ground. In the middle of the bridge, steps lead sharply up and down to form a triangular arch over a small evergreen tree.
The exhibition’s final gallery is devoted to the installation Sacco and Vanzetti Reading Room #3 (1988), part of a series of reading rooms and lounges inspired by Alexander Rodchenko’s 1925 design for a Soviet workers’ club. The reading room comprises a group of squat structures resembling cabins made of pallets, with seating and display tables that are constructed at sharp, uninviting angles. Stacks of newspapers and magazines fill various boxes and display racks. Armajani invited the collective Slavs and Tatars to create a reading list for the installation; several of their selections, which revolve around communist perspectives on race, are placed on a bookshelf, available for visitors to sit and read. The installation embodies all the major strands of the artist’s work over the last sixty years: utopian architecture, the power of language, the idea of art as a conduit for social and political understanding and the creation of a more engaged public life. As Armajani once described, the purpose of public art is to make “artists citizens again.” Given the cloistered and commercialized state of art today, this is a surprisingly radical proposition.