Andrew Topolski (1952-2008 ), Untitled, 2006; mixed media on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 inches; Estate of Andrew Topolski

Tony Bannon on Andy Topolski (1952-2008)

Monday, July 8, 2013

Andy Topolski died too soon. He was just hitting his stride. Born in 1952 in Buffalo, he was gone in 2008. He came up in that halcyon period in Buffalo that defined our post-modern times. He was partner and friend to the Buffalo luminaries who will acknowledge that he was the most inventive in the bunch.

He made pictures and performances out of other people’s words and numbers. Topolski anchored his art in texts as another artist might draw upon the landscape, or the figure, or an apple. The texts that he pictured included the Periodic Table and scientific and political tracts on nuclear energy, armaments, space exploration, and the latitude and longitude of personally and politically important places.

How did he make art from these words and numbers?

“Uniquely” that is the quick answer.

Here goes a longer one:

Topolski’s works teased out grand notions of organization—from the elements and their atomic structure to lines of global and astronomical measurement. While the artist’s drawings, sculptures, collages, and music are inseparable from the texts that inspired them, his finished works contained scant evidence of their source. As John Cage’s music (an acknowledged influence on Topolski’s musical and visual work) refused to reveal the kinship to the I Ching or Ouija board from which it was derived, Topolski’s tectonic sculpture and systemic drawings rarely introduced their generative procedures. Topolski explained back in 1992:

“All the work is a continuation for a series I’ve been doing for the last seven to ten years. It all began with a piece years ago where I used the Periodic Table of Elements. I took the radioactive elements, using the atomic numbers and atomic mass, plotting them in a graph, which eventually became a musical score. In a similar fashion, mechanical forms and certain texts that I find interesting---histories of war, statements by political figures—are used as a springboard to start a whole process. I use and reuse systems, plotting them on a graph in a progression similar to the way musical notes are plotted. The graph will take an angular or circular shape, and the drawings will evolve from there. There is a translation from text to graph to drawing”.

Topolski’s methodology permitted cross disciplinary expression without prejudice. The system was neutral. Within each medium, the plot of letters—or the numbers of latitude and longitude—contains like a chromosome the map of what the art object will become. In as much as the effect is unknown prior to the creation of the graph, the system bestows upon the letters and numbers that generate work an inference of vast possibilities, almost a transcendence.

The artist acknowledged his interest in the concept of transcendence, although he did not directly link this to divine force, instead to “sort of ominous power,” not unlike the Ouija board. Topolski also noted in interviews and artist’s statements that the texts he chose were considered as a part of his global politics. Many writers have concluded that these works should be understood as a “translation” of such global issues. However, Topolski’s “translations” are more; they are vehicles to transport or enrapture a viewer---a more ancient kind of translation that approaches transcendence.

Topolski’s work moves the viewer beyond what is presented and thus beyond the capacity to know fully. Topolski’s work is not a deconstruction, for it neither negates nor analyses the text it draws upon. Instead, his art prospects texts to mine information, then transforms that information synthetically, materializing the cool data of graphic X-Y coordinates into hot shards of numbers, letters, and words drawn from the source material.

With an ardor equal to that of early Constructivists, Topolski’s refined abstractions present an idealized, seemingly self-sufficient and defining stance from which the viewer is encouraged to engage his system. Thus committed, the viewer might infer significance derived in part from participating in the experience of these seemingly difficult, even arcane, works of art. As Topolski said, the works “are vulnerable to interpretation.” Finding meaning between the lines, as it were, or under the skin, the viewer has a chance to create with the artist new meanings from old rhetoric’s. It’s an adventure.

—Tony Bannon, executive director, Burchfield Penney Art Center