Poetic License in Public Spaces

Siah Armajani: The Tomb Series
Alexander Gray Associates
September 4 - October 18, 2014

Iranian-born Siah Armajani, inarguably one of the finest sculptors in America to have emerged out of minimal and conceptual art, the main aesthetic strategies of the late 1960s, creates deeply affective rigorous and ruminative work. It appears to be at once elementarily simple and tautly complex.

The Tomb Series, Armajani's affective and whip-smart show at Alexander Gray Associates, reaffirms that no other artist doing public works has so richly mined the legacy of the Russian Constructivists with such complexity, finesse, and exalted depth of feeling. No other artist has been involved in creating a public art that provides a reminder of shared, communal values and does so without pandering or sentimentality. No other artist has invested so many years on an extended public meditation on moral excellence in relation to civic pride and civic virtue. In one of his early writings the artist stated, "As a civic artist I am interested in architectural in an understandable context. Similarly I am interested in artifacts that reveal the nobility of their usefulness. My intention is to build structures that are not merely problematic or accidental but that relate to human purpose, structures that apply to being with things and belong to a place... One of my first decisions was to cast my lot with architecture because architecture was by its very nature social…It is a mass culture and could and should manifest a social system that is fair and just...."

Armajani's intensely self-reflective civic vision, with its use of vernacular architecture forms that recall the space of building and dwelling, is an unmistakable one in terms of its august, edifying and progressive presence. Armajani has a rough-and-ready way of cobbling surfaces together to create sculptures, tableaus or in-situ settings that invoke a sense of place and space redolent of harmony and grace, as befits his preferences for visual elements that pertain to union and communication. Armajani's uses his plainspoken, evocative constructive sculptural style -- it has in the past been disparagingly called a "picnic-table aesthetic" -- to deliver cenotaphic eulogies to culture-shapers such as Walt Whitman and Theodor Adorno. Such high culturati referents are embedded, so to speak, within Armajani's pictorial, sculptural, and architectural codes.

The artist has grafted the aesthetic provenance of the early Russian avant-garde, firmly rooted in his communitarian and egalitarian ideals, with visual and often verbal invocations to the democratic ideals supported by Jefferson (Monticello and its proportions have been an early fixation of Armajani) and the other Founding Fathers of the American Republic such as Thomas Paine. Other influential sources have been John Dewey’s practical considerations of art, the writings of John Burley Waring, American Transcendentalism via the writings of Emerson, and Sufi poetry.

In essence the artist has attempted to evoke in his artwork a sense of civic duty and civic virtue. He’s done this in part by using the restricted sculptural language arising from an abstract core vocabulary. This grammar of form has been selected and honed from the fields of architecture, town planning, engineering and carpentry. It is no surprise, then, that Armajani has been fascinated by the seemingly matters-of-fact involving road and railway building and the construction of bridges and the attendant structural phonemes of beams, cantilevers, and trusses. The semiology of home-building has riveted him: doors, windows, stairs, walkways, tables, benches, reading rooms, and gazebos are some of the many structural forms and units in combination that Armajani has used and honed over the course of a brilliant career spanning more than three decades of work.

In The Tomb Series, Armajani has softened the open-handed communitarian and public rhetoric to advance more personal and private side. Now an artist well advanced in years (he was born in 1939 and came to the United States from Tehran in 1960 to attend Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota). Armajani’s focus has taken an inward turn over the past decade and a half. He writes in the current exhibition catalog, "In the year 2000 my work, which since 1968 has been public, functional, neighborly and open, turned personal and melancholic. I have tried for years to fight and hide this, but failed. Now my work is peculiar and closed."

One of the artist's four large-scale commemorative sculptures at Alexander Gray Associates takes as its subject the memory of Walt Whitman, seen through the eyes of the admiring Armajani, who for years has been affected by aesthetic, philosophical and political ideas pertaining to Democracy seen through the ethos of communitas, connection and caring.

"Tomb for Walt Whitman" (2010) is a knockout piece that comes with two side-kicks that pertain to its making, what appear to be preliminary studies. The first is a small tabletop model scarcely bigger than fourteen inches wide and seven and three-quarters tall using everyday crafts material such as cardboard, canvas, plastic, eye bolts, string, and paint. The other is a three-foot by two-foot framed drawing that might pass as an architectural rendering of the actual sculpture (or a version or variation of it) using axonometric perspective for dramatic effect. The "Tomb of Walt Whitman" sculpture really comes alive even more so when you see the preliminary steps, the rather elaborate imaginative planning stages Armajani envisaged as part of an overall mental choreography that lead to the final version of the work as a pared-down and monumentally serene three-dimensional work. Each of the three art-objects relate to each other and offer insights as to how Armajani as creative artist evaluates and processes information, how he selects and deselects visual data that will (or will not) become pertinent in the assembling of a visual story pertaining to his version of Whitman.

"Tomb for Walt Whitman" delivers maximal visual impact using the most economical of means to the end of a journey, in keeping with Whitman's words selected by Armajani, invoked in the show’s catalog essay: "...our fearful trip is done, The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won; The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting." A small black open canvas tent with its soft folds huddles under an elevated trussed parapet or bridge that is cradled by two severely squared off arches. Held on that bridge is a box shape that becomes the stand-in for, perhaps, a casket, seemingly "in transit" on the bridge. Armajani conveys in a few quick strokes the tender and mixed feelings he has for the memory and the achievements of Whitman as a cause celebre and as an ordinary person outside of the gaze of posterity as a famous person, as a great literary figure. In and through "Tomb for Walt Whitman" Armajani fittingly addresses the memory of Walt Whitman, the self-called "Dresser of Wounds," author of four timeless poems on Lincoln’s death -- "This Dust Was Once a Man," "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," "Hushed'd Be the Camps To-day," "O Captain, My Captain." Most important is that Armajani seems to enjoin us not to forget Whitman's humanitarian work, spending the years of the Civil War in army-tent hospital barracks, serving as nurse, caring for wounded and dying soldiers.

The marvel here is that Armajani presents elemental yet scrupulously chosen forms and formats that resist easy, clichéd interpretations. He is the master of a balancing act: he chooses and uses recognizable, vernacular shapes and objects yet simplifies them to a point just shy of generic and the anodyne. Armajani alters the application of his self-avowed code of vernacular-derived "functionality" that permeates each of his forms just enough to infuse a sense of confusion or doubt as we try to interpret, too-cogently, his work. For the most part, he stays in that mid-zone of purposeful, functioning ambiguity where implicitness and explicitness converge. It is in that liminal area that the certainty of symbolic or affective equivalencies gets muted and where there is the greatest possibility for a range of mental and psychic associations to take place in the mind’s eye of the viewer. As he has made clear in the past Armajani's application of an aesthetic approach in his work that favors the appearance of "the useful" as a signifier of the open and the available as well as the functional is an approach that serves him well to create a sense of mystery and magic in his work. In a profile on him in The New Yorker with Calvin Tomkins in 1990, Armajani remarks on the charge that his work is hermetic: "It is always through the idea of the usefulness of an object that I become acquainted with it....This usefulness can be functional, or perceptual, or spiritual. It can provoke ideas without being functional."

Melancholy and sense of longing in this exhibition are metered through a tenor of discretion, diffidence, and reserve. In this respect The Tomb Series calls attention to itself as the antithesis of the spectacularizing exhibitions that we see all around us (pace Koons) that make claims they are about consumer fetishism, the formation or deformation of taste, or bien-pensant critiques of a supposedly alienated culture industry capitalizing on nostalgia value. There is none of that here.

Armajaani has a certain genius in shape-shifting his everyday materials to create succinct scenarios and spatialities that are beguiling and perplexing in their evocations of displacement, dislocation, and loss. Multivalent moods permeate his "tombs" that he creates using a phenomenological lexicon that he has developed over the years based on building-trade and transport-trade signifiers such as trestle, chimney, rail, corridor, window, cantilever. Applying this deconstructive lexicon, Armajani creates sculptures and tableaus that re-call the entropic forces saturating a post-industrial landscape/timescape and its effects on rural home, farm and factory. He does this effectively in the "Tomb for John Berryman" by creating a monumental miniature tableau of an area of Minneapolis that Berryman hung out at before committing suicide by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge into the Mississippi River in early 1972.

Siah Armajani is a master of constructing forms and delineating interior and exterior spaces that have an inert feeling. They also seem riven by a slow-boil animistic sensation that I find peculiarly strange and exciting. Armajani's compound-complex state of mind is fascinated by cliché and stereotype; he creates artworks that bespeak of outward banality through the language of introspection that paradoxically bears down on the language of public address that is informed by the artist’s strong sense of place, history, iconography, and style. This proves to be a winning formula for making art that beckons and resists easy interpretation, oscillating as it does in terms of vibrancy and pulse between the inert and the animated. This elegant simplicity and seemingly uncontrived nature of Armajani’s aesthetic in The Tomb Series is quite satisfying. He makes his objects with rectitude and mindfulness, provides little ostentation, and yet somehow manages to suffuse his vision's gravitas with the twin-impact of grace and mystery. - Dominique Nahas

Mr. Nahas, a former museum director and curator, teaches critical studies at Pratt Institute. A member, and former board member, of AICA-USA (Association Internationale des Critiques d'Art), Nahas has curated many museum and gallery shows and has written extensively on the visual arts in print and online culture and art magazines.