Portrait of SIAH ARMAJANI, 1977. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives, Minneapolis.

Picture Window with Two Chairs. In Memory of Siah Armajani (1939–2020)

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I first met Siah Armajani in 2008 when I became director of the Walker Art Center. I was struck by the quiet, soft-spoken qualities of the humble citizen-artist, whose towering legacy had shaped my sensibilities as a young curator more than a decade earlier.

My initial encounter with Siah had been through his art. The sculpture Dictionary for Building: Closet under Stairs (1985) was a landmark piece in the Hirshhorn Museum’s collection, where I was an assistant curator. I recall how the hybrid architectural structure, which fused Western and non-Western elements, spoke to me. As the child of Cuban exiles, I recognized an immigrant’s perspective in Siah’s art, born of his own personal experience of exile from his native Iran in the late 1950s. 

For a young Latinx curator like myself, emerging at the height of the multicultural 1980s, Siah’s sophisticated explorations of the values and markers of identity inscribed in architectural form were instructive. His works encapsulated the complex tensions displaced individuals must often navigate when bridging cultures. They highlighted the gaps between what is expressed publicly or remains private.

Siah’s Picture Window with Two Chairs (1974–75) provided further inspiration. It was one of six small architectural models he gifted the Hirshhorn in honor of James T. Demetrion, the museum’s legendary director, who was one of my early mentors. Despite the object’s miniature scale, the space between the two balsa wood chairs felt monumental. It was an expanse that represented an unprecedented level of trust between artist and curator. It modeled a rare brand of professional integrity I have aspired to achieve in my work with artists throughout my career.

In the years that followed, my relationship to Siah’s art deepened, especially as I experienced many of his public projects across the United States and in Europe. I will never forget happening upon Siah’s Picnic Table for Huesca (2000) in this remote village of northern Spain. There I witnessed what a cherished communal gathering space the table had become for the citizens of this depressed industrial town, where the legacy of Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco was still visible in the urban landscape.  

It was not until I lived in Minneapolis that I came to fully appreciate the power of Siah’s manifesto “Public Sculpture in the Context of American Democracy” in action. His expansive Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, built in 1988, remains one of the icons of the adopted city he called home for 60 years. To this day, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, it offers space of respite and reflection in a city struggling to overcome America’s starkest racial and economic divides.

During my years at the Walker, I often visited Siah and his wife, Barbara. His home and studio were immediately proximate to the Walker and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. His focus during the last decade was to complete the Tomb series, a body of work begun in the 1970s dedicated to honoring all those who had shaped him personally and professionally. When he commenced work on the final Tomb, for Minneapolis, it felt like an ominous foreshadowing.

Conscious that our time might be short, the Walker’s curators and I sought to record as much as we could of Siah’s early work and practice. It was a process that he, at times, rejected, as he preferred to focus squarely on the present. In the studio, his address of current events accelerated at this time, particularly in the face of the global refugee crisis and the Trump administration’s travel ban against Muslim countries. This culminated in the artist’s final series, Seven Rooms of Hospitality (2017), a poignant analysis of refugee architecture and the geo-political language of detainment.

Siah deplored all forms of injustice and spoke out boldly, not only through his art but also his writing. He could shower praise as readily as anger. He loved to champion new ideas. He was also an incredibly modest man who rejected accolades, which often got in the way of attending to matters of his legacy.  

For decades, Siah resisted the idea of a career retrospective. Several attempts by US museums, including the Walker, had failed. I would often joke with him that his long-anticipated survey had been forecast on every advance exhibition schedule during my 20-plus years working in museums. He knew it was a reality I was determined to change. While Siah would usually blush, and swiftly brush aside my entreaties, I believe my determination delighted him. This furtive exchange persisted for years.

When the 60-year survey, “Siah Armajani: Follow This Line,” finally opened at the Walker in 2018, I reminded Siah one last time of our playful banter. This time he responded with focused intention and offered me a hearty, bellowing laugh. It was followed by an affirming nod and a prolonged smile. After a minute he added the word, “Yes,” and then “yes,” again.

This affirmation spoke volumes, like a haiku or Rumi’s spare poetry, which he so admired. And it was precisely then that I took note of the space we inhabited. It was, after all, a room with two chairs and a picture window.

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ARNDT Massimo de Carlo 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art