Simon Toparovsky has cut himself loose.
After 20 years as one of the country's most respected creators of artists' books--one-of-a-kind, handcrafted pieces of art that are in major museum collections throughout the world--the Los Angeles man has made the transition to working in large, three-dimensional works.
From the highly specialized and disciplined field of hand bookbinding and artists' books, also called book art--which included years of medieval-like apprenticeship--Toparovsky has turned to a new, freer form.
An exhibit of his latest work is being shown at the Sherry Frumkin Gallery in Santa Monica. It is the first public show of this body of mixed-media pieces that were created over the past three years.
"I've gotten lots of attention over the years for artists' books, and I've been quiet about this new work, waiting for the right opportunity to exhibit it," Toparovsky said.
On the surface, the switch from handcrafted books to his new work--including a huge installation anchored by a wall 25 feet wide by 14 feet high--is dramatic.
But there is a commonality in materials and narrative theme that runs through both of Toparovsky's formats.
"So many bookbinders tend to be staid and conservative, and clearly Simon has been an adventurer and has moved into a new field of art," said Eudorah Moore of Pasadena, who has known Toparovsky since 1978 when she was the crafts coordinator at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington.
"But his new works are still related to books because they're very literary and have messages," she said. "They're not book formats, but they have book messages."
The Frumkin exhibit--whose theme is "Abundance and Yearning"--is dominated by a garden installation that employs the wall and floor. With a painted mural that includes banana trees, a "celestial window" and rubbings from a gravestone serving as a backdrop, the installation has as its centerpiece a seven-foot-high metal sculpture illuminated by neon.
On the floor in front are nearly 3,000 Italian granite cobbles that surround a six-foot-wide fabricated steel dish with water, a propane-fueled spiral fire and plants.
The other 30 or so pieces in the show include free-standing sculptures and wall constructions with painted and drawn surfaces and with applications of paper, glass, steel, tiles, found objects, manipulated images, gold tooling, mirrors, words made of cast-plaster letters and even dried grapevine.
Toparovsky draws on images and icons from mythology and religion in a wide variety of cultures.
"The images are three-dimensional pages from ancient manuscripts, they're roadside shrines in Mexico, they're glass sarcophagi that were made by newly converted Russian Orthodox Native Alaskans," he said.
Toparovsky brings to his new work a high level of discipline acquired over years as a hand bookbinder, a craft that dates back to the Middle Ages but nearly vanished in the 16th Century with the onset of machine methods for printing and binding books.
From 1971 to 1972, he studied and apprenticed at the Capricornus School of Hand Bookbinding and Restoration in Berkeley, much as his predecessors 500 years ago would have done. He made tea, swept the floors, made paste and adhesive, set things up for classes and watched over the shoulders of the craftsmen.
He was intrigued by the medieval atmosphere of the school, the big iron presses and the slow, contemplative life of the bookbinders. He continued his apprenticeship at Henry Brooks Ltd. in Oxford, England, and at H. Wayne Eley Associates in New Haven, Conn.
A native of the Philadelphia area, Toparovsky also studied art and art history at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and took courses through UC Berkeley Extension and at Temple University in Philadelphia.
The hand bookbinding led to his work as creator of artists' books, which are not dispensers of printed information but are works of art, usually with a narrative thread contained in pictures and images.
Over the years, he experimented with new materials and concepts of what an artists' book could be. And museums and private collectors throughout the world started to take notice--and acquire his work.
His "Beaubourg Book," for example, is made of Plexiglas, vinyl, monofilament and acetate. His book "Tikal Codex" received a special designation at New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum of the Smithsonian Institution--as "first book as art in the permanent collection of artists' books."
"What's interesting about his work is that he's aware of text and image in his art," said Marcia Reed, curator of rare books at the J. Paul Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Santa Monica, which has two of Toparovsky's books in its collection.
"He really does have a unique take in making book art and objects," she said. "There really is an individual voice."
Aside from the Smithsonian and the Getty, Toparovsky's books are in more than 30 museums and private collections throughout the world, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, National Museum of Modern Art in Canberra, Australia and Artworks Gallery in Los Angeles.
Toparovsky has not only been busy in the studio, but has taught and lectured throughout the country, done consulting work and received awards and honors, including seven grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Despite his success in the field, he started to feel restless about his work. In 1985, after what he described as a series of "wild dreams" and other developments in his life, he made his decision.
"I guess I consciously ended thinking about fitting my artwork into book format after completing a few sets of multiple originals that two of my dealers wanted me to do," he said. "It suddenly dawned on me that I was punishing myself by having a feeling of devotion to this medium, that it wasn't working for me anymore and I was forcing it because I had made such an investment over time. Finally I just stopped. I felt it was what I had to do."
Actually, Toparovsky hasn't completely given up his book art. In the ensuing years, he has created a few books and he teaches the craft at the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles. But most of his attention has been focused on his new body of work.
In 1990, Toparovsky received his first opportunity to publicly display his new work. He received a grant from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department to design, fabricate and install a permanent public artwork, "La Reina de Los Angeles," on the east wall of Otis/Parsons' North Gallery, located at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles.
He believes that the theme of his show at Frumkin--"Abundance and Yearning"--is a good description of his own artistic transition.
"The human condition is about yearning--we're all yearning, we're all seeking," he said. "And abundance is a natural state, it's all here. If we're focused and taking responsibility for ourselves, it's easy to see that abundance is a natural state.
"The work has continued to grow and change," he added. "I don't know what I'm going to do next. But I do know that it's really important for me not to limit myself to what I can imagine at the moment."