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Siah Armajani.
Siah Armajani.

Siah Armajani (1939–2020)

Iranian-American artist Siah Armajani, whose work across media bridged architecture, democracy, mathematics, and the commons, has died of heart failure in Minneapolis. Long underrecognized, the eighty-one-year-old was recently the subject of his first major United States retrospective, “Siah Armajani: Follow This Line,” which opened at the Walker Art Center in 2018 and traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Breuer in New York the following year.  “Public sculpture is a search for a cultural history which calls for structural unity between the object and its social and spatial setting,” he wrote in his manifesto. “It should be open, available, useful, and common.”

Armajani was born in Tehran in 1939 into a wealthy family of prominent textile merchants. As a child, he worked to spread the ideas of recently-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh by distributing “night letters” that outlined the democratic, secular vision of his party, the National Front; these missives inspired his 1957–64 series of the same name. In 1960, with Iran under the rule of monarchist Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Armajani traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota, at the behest of his family to study art and philosophy at Macalester College. St. Paul would remain the reclusive artist’s home for the rest of his life.

Armajani’s art career began with his entry of two works into the 1962 Biennial of Painting and Sculpture at the local Walker Art Center. They soon became the first institution to acquire one of his pieces, that year’s text-based Prayer, initiating a relationship between artist and museum that would endure until Armajani’s death. While teaching at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he met Barry Le Va, who introduced him to the Conceptual art coming out of New York. For his contribution to the storied 1970 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Information,” Armajani used cutting-edge computer technology to create A Number Between Zero and One, 1969, and North Dakota Tower, 1968; the latter was meant to represent the height of a spire that would cast a shadow over all of North Dakota. That year, he submitted Bridge Over Tree—a simple wooden bridge, spiked in the middle to make space for a small evergreen, reconstructed by New York’s Public Art Fund in 2019—to the Walker’s “9 Artists / 9 Spaces.” His “Dictionary for Building” series, 1974–75, consists of more than 1,000 cardboard and balsa wood models of vernacular elements of American architecture.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Armajani expanded his ideas into ever-larger public artworks, including the iconic Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, 1988—which connects the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to Loring Park via a soaring, blue and yellow expanse emblazoned with lines penned by poet Robert Ashley—and the cage-like pavilion Gazebo for Four Anarchists: Mary Nardini, Irma Sanchini, William James Sidis, Carlo Valdinoci, 1993. For the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Armajani designed the event’s Olympic Cauldron, placing it atop a metal tower. Fallujah, 2004–05, is a monument against the Iraq War with elements drawn from Picasso’s Guernica, 1937. The subject of over 50 solo exhibitions, Armajani’s work can be found in the collections of the Walker, MoMA, the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in DC, the British Museum, London, and many others. Armajani is survived by Barbara, his wife of fifty-four years.