A Cup of a Photograph

Marc Freidus
Independent Curator
New York, NY

Photography has been a persistent component of Irv Tepper’s dialogue with the cup for the past thirty years. At different times Tepper has turned to photography as a seemingly transparent medium for the production of conceptual artworks, as a compositional tool in his drawing process, and increasingly as a medium for the production of independent pictures. Photography, like the eavesdropping cup, can be a tool for extending the range of what we are normally capable of seeing or knowing, opening a portal into the unknown.

Tepper’s first mature photographic works, made in Seattle and San Francisco between 1970 and 1972, came at a time when he was reacting against the focus on the ceramic vessel that he had been exposed to at the Kansas City Art Institute. Encouraged by Howard Kottler at the University of Washington, Tepper explored desire and his personal obsession with eating, creating miniature ceramic food tableaux. Ceramic works such as Lemon Meringue Sea, 1970, with its store-bought plastic people frolicking on a pie-wedge beach, humorously examined surreal shifts of scale as well as body consciousness.[i] On his own, Tepper photographed similar irreverent set-ups, such as a group of little plastic men scaling a mountain of prunes and apricots, or a group of miniature barnyard animals grazing in front of naked female torso. At the color lab that processed his prints Tepper studied photographic technique, learning to light a still life with a single light, a technique he has used to photograph his cups to this day.

These set-ups played with the distortions of scale and context that photography is eminently capable of, deriving their effect by subverting the “common-sense” belief in the veracity of the medium. In their humorous, narrative exploration of perceptual issues, these works paralleled the groundbreaking photographic work being done simultaneously by William Wegman and Robert Cumming in southern California.[ii] In a sense they show Tepper making a shift from the body-oriented work of a potter towards a conceptual or mind oriented art. While the subject matter clearly derives from pop art and a sixties sense of anti-elitism, from today’s perspective these works seem prescient and predictive of the post-modern staged and fabricated photography of a decade later. But Tepper’s early photographic works were not widely seen, and to the degree they were post-modern, debunking notions of authenticity, they represented only one of many voices Tepper tried experimentally before his 1975 breakthrough work, Idea Drawing for Flawed Cup. Ultimately he would arrive at an edgier, less ironic voice than we usually associate with post-modernism.

Tepper’s work between 1972 and 1976 involved a search for a medium that was personal, autobiographical, and able to invoke a heightened sense of space and body consciousness in the viewer. (Think of Vito Acconci for a parallel – pursuing similar concerns through different means). This included color photographs of “fake vacations;” a series of black and white photographic self-portraits depicting Tepper contorting and distorting his body while wearing a boldly striped shirt; videos- including one documenting Tepper’s attempts to master his body by dieting; and a series of stereo photographs of coffee cups.

Tepper chose the stereo format in order to make an image that was unfinished until the three-dimensional illusion appeared in the viewer’s mind. He experimented with several methods of creating this “direct brain stimulation,” a patently artificial technique where the image is printed by silkscreen in two overlapping colors (red and green) and is then viewed through a filtered viewer that converges the image. He also employed the traditional nineteenth-century method of pairing two adjacent black and white prints, shot off-axis, which converge when viewed through a stereo viewer.

Tepper made several stereo photographs of a possession that had long fascinated him:[iii] a coffee cup with a crooked handle, stolen from the cafeteria in his first days at the University of Washington. Rather than photograph any of the other cups he had collected because he admired their form or decoration, Tepper focused on the cup with the flaw. The flaw gave the cup a life of its own, a force unintended by its maker, a quality that Tepper was determined to explore. It was also not lost on him that the cup’s contents, coffee, also provided a form of direct brain stimulation. Tepper placed the cup on a checkerboard tablecloth to enhance the stereo illusion. He made several drawings from these stereo photographs, including Idea Drawing for Flawed Cup and This Story Isn’t Finished Yet.

In these drawings Tepper developed his technique for fragmenting the image by drawing each gridded section separately. This extended in time both his experience of making the object and the viewer’s experience viewing it. Unlike his videos in which the temporal dimension was fixed, by dividing the drawing into squares and placing multiple stories and diaristic notations around the image, Tepper finally had created an object which exhibited the experiential density and layered quality he had been seeking in his photographic and video work. He emphasized this slowed-down, intimate quality o the drawings in his 1979 SITE installation, placing a single, well-worn chair in front of each drawing and attaching a stereo viewer to each frame.

Throughout his career, Tepper has frequently used photography as a foil or counterpart for his expressions in other media. When he made studies for his early drawings and photographed his early cps, until around 1980 his photographs were straightforward and workmanlike. Although he carefully planned the tabletop composition, the backgrounds, and the lighting, as a rule the photographs seldom had the presence of independent art objects. By the early 1980s, however, Tepper began experimenting with different photographic techniques as a way of extending the experience of his cups.

Using tightly controlled studio lighting, Tepper was able to heighten the moods and personalities of his porcelain cups. He used a gentle, almost dissolving light in which to view Daniel’s cup (1983) or the cup in He is Thinking… “I’ll get even, just wait!” (1982). On the other hand, in photographing Tex Talks Back (titled for the acerbic Howard Kottler), the inner glowing light of the cup is contrasted with its dark, ominous skull-like shadow. For Tepper, the fixed two-dimensional perspective of photography allowed him to heighten selective aspects of a cup. Often he showed the cup’s ability to capture and transmit light; at other times he emphasized the abstract implications of a particular view that might be seen fleetingly, if at all, when viewing the cup itself. The overhead perspective in the photograph on which he based the drawing Big Ear or Big Mouth provides a particularly dramatic example.

Occasionally Tepper produced multiple views of a single cup, especially after he began to radically fracture the cups’ forms in the late 1980s. The color photographs of I’m Happy if You’re Happy (1987) show Tepper playing with the cup’s fragmented form. The darker view shows a solid cup crashing in upon itself, in a demonstration of a porcelain plate tectonics; the lighter photograph is more suggestive of a big grin or a profile view of Mickey Mouse. Neither is more than a fragmentary look at the possible forms the cup can take. Although the written stories disappeared as a component of Tepper’s art, the cups are still complex characters, if no longer narrators.

In the 1990s much of Tepper’s photographic work was devoted to subjects other than his cups. His color photographs documenting the slow growth of a rubber band ball combined the deliberate drawn-out process he used in creating his cups and drawings with his interest in the energy inherent in the discards and margins of society. Perhaps as a result of his trips through the New York streets margins of society. Perhaps as a result of his trips through the New York streets collecting rubber bands from the sidewalk, Tepper began photographing the sleeping homeless. As in so many of his works, Tepper courted a deliberate clash of form and subject matter. These photographs emphasized the bold colors and baroque folds of blankets and jackets the homeless draped themselves in. The pictures are visually seductive, but the subject is certainly not aestheticized.

The most instructive photographic parallel to these pictures, I believe, are the works of Aaron Siskind. Siskind’s works seek to create a new photographic world alive and populated, by abstracting signs from the urban scene. They generate enormous tension in their simultaneous presentation of marks on picture plane and the suggestion that the lively forms they show are “out there” in the “real world,” if only we are attentive enough to see. Speaking of his own work in 1945, Siskind could have been commenting on Tepper’s photographs when he noted, “they are informed with animism – not so much that these inanimate objects resemble the creatures of the animal world (as indeed they often do), but rather that they suggest the energy we usually associate with them. Aesthetically, they pretend to the resolution of these sometimes fierce, sometimes gentle, but always conflicting faces.”[iv]

Of course, Tepper’s colorful street photographs do not look anything like Siskind’s monochrome abstractions. But Siskind’s darker works have a visual analog in Tepper’s elegant, sensual, black and white images of the bronze cups of the 1990s. Here, Tepper has blown the cup’s form apart and photographed it enveloped in darkness, occasionally resting on a spiderweb-like base of corrugated cardboard. The cups are lit using the technique that Tepper learned in Seattle thirty years ago, a single bulb carefully directed and, where appropriate, reflected. The bronze cups have shimmering highlights, but their contorted forms recall nothing so much as cooled volcanic lava or the melted shards of glass bottles distorted by the nuclear explosion at Hiroshima.

In his ceramics, drawings, and photographs Tepper has taken the idea of the cup and used it as a cloak, a disguise for a multifaceted examination of the self and the self’s place in society. In the bronzes and modernist photographs of the 1990s Tepper operated in a baroque operatic mode, aware of the approaching millennium. The distance from the Complaining Cup or the humorous food photographs of the 1970s is stark. Tepper’s works have moved from the personal to the universal, from the comic to the tragic. The brash casual attitude of youth has left Tepper’s works, but in their freshness, their response to the changes that life throws out, Tepper’s photographs and cups step confidently up to the plate, ready to swing.