Flight of Icarus

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Simon Toparovsky is widely regarded as a leader in the field of artist created one-of-a-kind books. For twenty years, his work helped set the standard. While pushing the conceptual boundaries, his oeuvre remained fastiduous in its craftsmanship and brilliant combination of materials. He was honored, sought out as a teacher and asked to lecture throughout America. His work was avidly collected by leading institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Center. His Tikal Codex was the acquired by the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Design and designated the first book-as-art in the collection. Then as the last decade of the century commenced and Simon Toparovsky approached mid-life, he began recreating himself. He stopped teaching and devoted himself to the studio. Though narrative remains an element of his work he is no longer making books. Iron and bronze have become his preferred materials. He has reached into the fire and found Icarus.

The Judeo-Christian interpretation of the Icarus myth, in which a head-strong boy perishes for failing to heed his father’s advice, is unacceptable to the artist. He believes that Icarus, in his ecstatic reach for the sun, was transformed, not killed. The Icarus myth, in Simon Toparovsly’s opinion, is the ideal metaphor for a courageous life. He believes risk-taking is an imperative for a serious artist. In the artist’s words, the myth is about “a door leading to a door.”

Simon Toparovsky went to Kohler, Wisconsin to give form to his vision of the Icarus story. Two residencies at the Kohler Company, funded by the corporation and the National Endowment for the Arts, provided the artist with the opportunity in the nation’s leading iron casting facility. With previous foundry experience and technical support from Kohler, the artist quickly mastered the processes required to be free of constraints with his aesthetic vision. Then alone, during long hours of backbreaking labor, in the din of an enormous factory producing toilets, tubs and sinks, Toparovsky created a remarkable twentieth century version of an ancient myth. When asked about iron as an appropriate material for the project the artist states, “As in the myth, it is the impossible made possible. Iron sculpture can appear to float.”

The body of work is in three parts. There are five panels that relate the artist’s version of the myth. And there are small figures that depict Icarus in his Incarnations after the fall. None of the sculptures are editions, however there are three variations of each panel and twenty-one life-size bodies cast in Fragments, which the artist dreams of manipulating for commissioned installations.

The first panel is entitled Desire. It was made during the artist’s initial visit to Kohler to acquaint himself with the process of iron casting. Simon Toparovsky is intrigued by the rough qualities of the material he believes expresses the fire and heat of the sun. This panel firmly establishes the Icarus theme and iconography for the series that followed.

The second panel, He Had to Turn Away, is inscribed “I Will.” This panel depicts Icarus falling, six angels and Daedalus watching, a cayman waiting in water for prey and a ladder that suggests the possibility of resurrection. The piece confronts the breaking away from family that all adolescents must experience, and the pain of the parent as the process is observed. Breathe Deeply is the title of the fourth panel. Icarus, in this piece, is breaking apart as he free-falls through space. The episode is described by the artist as “him and him alone”. The last panel, As Deep As Heaven, reveals Icarus rising. He has sustained injury, been permanently changed, yet is triumphant. Simon Toparovsky states, “Though my Icarus figures are broken, they are still capable, and the evidence of the transformation they have experienced has made them more beautiful.”

Fragments comprise the next aspect of the series. They are life size iron castings of a young man in pieces, with wing forms cast from sticks and leaves, burlap scraps and wax; materials that Daedalus could have found on Crete. The Fragments can be configured in any combination. They represent Icarus during and after the fall, wounded yet powerful. These pieces are the most direct and sensuous of the series. They celebrate youth in a tradition that encompasses the entire history of Western art. They are twentieth century echoes of the splendid kouros of the classical age from which the Icarus myth originates. Simon Toparovsky continues to explore the Icarus theme. He states “My work is not a closed system. One body of work leads to another. I am grateful for the flow.” The last aspect of the exhibition is evidence of the artist’s involvement in a continuum. Incarnations are small unique castings, some with elements of brass and bronze, of the hero in all his possible transformations. Magician, fool, shaman, god, goddess, Icarus is now the messenger of passage and triumph. In the artist’s hands he changes at will, honoring custom and culture wherever he lands. He is revered and blesses all that gaze upon him with a sense of hope. Some of these works incorporate pedestals, candles, cast agaves and other elements that reference time and place. Some of the figures are bound, missing body parts and obviously marked by their experience. Yet they stand erect. They are more than survivors. They are heroes at the far end of the Western culture ready to transform into a universal truth.

Robert Barrett
former Director/Chief Curator of the Fresno Art Museum

excerpted from the exhibition catalog essay, October 1995