Written by Elisabeth Siegel
The opening of Siah Armajani’s “Follow this Line” at the Met Breuer on Feb. 20 was well-attended by a flurry of art community luminaries.
The artist himself was approached by a steady stream of admirers throughout the event, ranging from a small, novice gaggle of awestruck Yale students (the author among them) to curator giants of the art world and other artists — particularly those also from Iran and the larger Middle East — who had flocked to attend the first night of the exhibit.
After all, here was the first ever solo show exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum for an Iranian artist.
The retrospective at the Met Breuer will be available from Feb. 20 to June 9, 2019, and it spans nearly six decades, involving a whirlwind of Armajani’s works that reference Persian calligraphy and signology, poetry, mathematical equations, programming, Expressionism, Bauhaus design, and Constructivism.
The enduring spirit of Armajani, who came to the United States to stay safe from anti-democratic political violence under the Shah in Iran and who at the age of 79 continues to create politically relevant installation works makes him a veritable legend.
Armajani was born in Tehran in 1939. His earlier works mostly make use of ink or watercolor on cloth or paper, balancing abstraction with overt politicality. As a socialist and dissenter under the Shah’s regime, Armajani emigrated at the age of 20 in 1960, and he arrived in Minneapolis. At Macalester College, he studied philosophy; his work demonstrates influences from other intellectual figures within philosophy and politics, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ahmad Shamlou.
The theme of “exile” is a thread wound through a number of his works. The expansive, 23-foot piece “Letters Home” involves handwriting and artwork with a felt-tip pen on cloth, containing writing and illustrations that Armajani sent home in letters to his family still in Iran.
“The works on view combine a wide range of references: political propaganda, religious sermons, handwritten letters, magic spells, recited poems, songs broadcast on the radio, and architectural elements,” wrote the Metropolitan Museum about the works. “As hybrid objects, they invite new readings and offer multiple perspectives. At the same time, they resist interpretation by blocking access, obscuring legibility, and frustrating conventions of use. These two apparently contradictory gestures are central to the experience of exile.”
Armajani is also known for creating large-scale, interactive and environmental sculptures that subvert traditional leisure or functional architectural works across the American landscape. He has had over 100 of such projects realized throughout the world. His work often invites viewer participation in order to link public places with their philosophical, political, and ethical eventualities. For instance, within the gallery floor, the Sacco and Vanzetti Reading Room — named for two influential Italian anarchists executed in the U.S. in the 1920’s — invites the audience to spend some time within that room browsing the reading recommendations and to take a pencil if they so wish.
The collection of works captures the full breadth and depth of his feelings towards exile, and more largely questions the role public art can play in the U.S. today.
Above all, Armajani believes that it is paramount for art to speak to large political truths, and for art to ultimately be able to exist and conduct discourse beyond its own contained, discrete being. There is no question that his storied 60 year career speaks for itself here.
With thanks to Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi.