Fraught and Fabulous: Art That Shows a Passion for Democracy

If it weren’t for the Met Breuer, New Yorkers might never see exceptional shows like “Siah Armajani: Follow This Line.” Its career survey of this American artist is well-timed for an era of sundering moral confusion and offers ways forward from it.

Mr. Armajani was born in Iran in 1939, arrived in the United States as a political exile in 1960, and has been here ever since. For more than 50 years, he has been producing public sculpture across the country — there’s a wonderful example installed in Brooklyn to coincide with the Met show — yet his name still has low recognition value, even within the art world.

In part, he is responsible for this. He has chosen to spend his entire career in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, rather than in the art capitals of either coast. And his architecturally scaled structures, though rich in visual texture, are far from being eye candy. Most of them seem to say “welcome,” when they’re really saying “not so fast.”

Indeed, the Met Breuer show, his first major retrospective in New York (it debuted at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis), requires some effort, in the form of looking and label reading, to become fully accessible. It’s well worth the effort. To take in the full span of his art at a lingering, inquiring pace means you get to spend time with a sharp social thinker, a wry (and increasingly melancholic) metaphysician and a plain-style visual poet.

Mr. Armajani grew up in a Christian family in Tehran, but was immersed in Islamic culture. He claims to have inherited his passion for politics from a grandmother who had been an anti-imperial activist in her youth. His own involvement with protest began as a teenager when, in 1953, Iran’s democratically elected premier, Mohammed Mossadegh, was ousted by a coup that cemented the power of the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Soon afterward, Mr. Armajani began making art — the earliest pieces in the show date from 1957 — in the form of poster-size collages that combined Islamic religious images, snippets of Persian songs and pro-democracy slogans. The mixing and layering was meant to avert detection by censors. (He called some of these works “Night Letters,” referring to anti-government writing passed around secretly in earlier revolutionary times.) But his family worried that his messages were all too clear, and in 1960 they shipped him off to America for safety.

He landed in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where an uncle taught at Macalester College, and he enrolled in the school himself. There he studied philosophy, sociology and mathematics, but also caught up on modern Western art history, from Russian Constructivism to Jackson Pollock, and became interested in contemporary figures like John Cage.

Constructivism provided a historic model for a role that Mr. Armajani had already adopted: the artist as worker-citizen. (Pollock, by contrast, represented a persona he rejected: artist as celebrity seer.) And Cage’s use of chance as a creative method suggested the advantages of shaking art loose from traditional forms and predetermined meanings, opening it to expansive — and potentially confounding — new content.

For Mr. Armajani, science and art were complementary realms. He seems, for example, to have viewed the 1969 moon landing as a kind of performance art event. From the moment Apollo 11 lifted off, and for the eight days it stayed in space, he kept his portable television tuned to live broadcasts of the mission. Then, right after the return to Earth, he shut off the TV and padlocked its electric plug, effectively turning the set into a conceptual object: a memory bank, a time capsule, a tomb. (It’s in the show.)

Also in 1969 he experimented with computer-generated projects, producing results that were at once geeky and fabulous. 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 — how could creating a monster shadow be a happy idea? — that would permeate his later sculptures.

Much of this later work emerged from his fascination with and measured affection for American popular culture, or at least those aspects of it that embody a “nobility of usefulness.” In 1967, he became a United States citizen. The following year, he participated in an architectural renewal project organized by rural Jackson, Minn. Most of the town’s 19th-century commercial buildings had fallen into disrepair after malls sucked business away. Wanting to preserve their material history, Jackson residents asked engineers, scholars and artists for help.

Assisted by students from a local high school, Mr. Armajani spent four years as a volunteer in the grass-roots project, studying, documenting and restoring. 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 what was around him: houses, barns, shops, bridges. He called this lexicon of imagined designs “Dictionary for Building.”

Most examples — there are close to 150 in the Met show — were cutaways of domestic interiors, replete with tiny pieces of furniture. Almost anything miniature has a kind of built-in winsomeness, though that’s not the full impression here. In nearly every model, something’s off. Structural walls, dividing inside space from outside, are missing. Staircases lead nowhere. Furniture assumes functions it shouldn’t have and ends up in places it shouldn’t be.

The result is closer to being a dissection of domesticity than a distillation of it, with any sense of stability thrown off. You want coziness, reassurance, home, and instead you get subtle disorientation and a sense that these interiors have psychologically fraught stories to tell.

The same is true of some of Mr. Armajani’s many full-size public sculptures. Several are based on the forms of early American covered bridges. And one piece, “Bridge Over Tree” — originally created in 1970 for the Walker Art Center, has been temporarily reconstructed by the Public Art Fund.

Set in an open field on the East River waterfront between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, it’s a version of a covered wooden footbridge, with trussed sides, a shingle roof and a small, abrupt arch at its center. From a distance, it looks marooned and useless, a bridge with no connections, no place to go, no point. Closer up, you see that its arch shelters a small evergreen tree. Once you spot the tree, an architectural folly is revealed to embody an ethical gesture: a rebuke to a city — a nation — that has historically plowed nature under in the devouring interest of “development.”

Similarly symbolic are pavilions and gazebos that Mr. Armajani has conceived as public gathering places and dedicated to his various cultural heroes, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walter Benjamin, Emma Goldman and, in a 2017 series called “Seven Rooms of Hospitality,” immigrants like himself.

One such piece, a “reading room” built in 1988 to commemorate the martyred Italian-American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, has been reconstituted at Met Breuer. Visitors are welcome to sit and browse a library of books on race, dispossession and revolution (the politically alert contemporary artist collective Slavs and Tartars chose the texts) and take notes with pencils.

As in “Bridge Over Tree,” the basic gesture is open and generous, but the actual experience is neither easy nor soothing. The reading room seats are hard; the walls are barred and prisonlike; the pencils bristle like shot arrows. When, over the years, Mr. Armajani has designed sculptural cenotaphs for historical figures he admires, the effect has sometimes been similar. These memorials often don’t mark places of rest, but of disquiet, even anguish. A maquette for a grave marker for the poet John Berryman, who jumped to his death from a Minneapolis bridge in 1972, is in the show. It takes the form of a miniature city, a rambling Crazytown painted ash-black.

The exhibition — organized by Clare Davies, an assistant curator at the Met, with Victoria Sung and Jadine Collingwood of the Walker — looks demandingly, even discouragingly dense at the Breuer (which is scheduled to cease operation as a Met gallery space in June 2020). The original Walker installation gave it more room to breathe. But it faithfully follows the complex line of Mr. Armajani’s career up to the near-present without trying to isolate its formal strands or smooth its mixed moods. It offers a portrait of the artist as citizen-exile, maker-philosopher, idealist-doubter and ethicist to the core — one who understands that love is labor and hope is hard work. To say that it does Mr. Armajani justice is high praise.

Siah Armajani: Follow This Line

Through June 2 at the Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, Manhattan; 212-731-1675,

“Bridge Over Tree” is installed at Brooklyn Bridge Park, on the Brooklyn waterfront between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, through Sept. 29.

Holland Cotter is the co-chief art critic. He writes on a wide range of art, old and new, and he has made extended trips to Africa and China. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2009.

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