Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art
Los Angeles, CA
Irvin Tepper’s ceramic cups and intensely rendered drawings are alive and endowed with feelings. Tepper’s drawings of porcelain cups relate by way of narrative texts the story the cup has observed. These texts ascribe human and animated qualities to the artist’s cups. The cups are endowed with reason and individual spirit. In short, they are animistic. These cups speak of the human condition and act out an emotional reality through melodrama. At times, they offer moralistic stories. At other times they adopt a sarcastic tone.
Throughout Tepper’s career, he has relished the power of an object to express experience. Tepper allows the object to reveal its story in various ways. His drawings of porcelain cups instruct by way of extensive text. His ceramics unveil their secrets in a purely visual manner.
Tepper’s first experience in object making came as an undergraduate at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he mastered traditional wheel thrown pottery. Under Professor Ken Ferguson he learned to appreciate the oriental tradition whereby perfection is deliberately tempered with a flaw. Tepper had abandoned traditional pottery by the time of his graduate studies at the University of Washington, where he concentrated on ceramic narrative tableaux. These works embraced political and social concerns, sometimes employing found texts or autobiographical references. By the end of graduate school Tepper felt that ceramics was no longer a suitable medium for his concerns. He utilized photography as the primary medium for his increasingly conceptual work.
Tepper became involved in the San Francisco conceptual art world in 1971. Conversations with Terry Fox and Paul Kos as well as philosopher James Friedman created an intellectual environment that sustained Tepper in his conceptual orientation. He associated as well with the group around the Museum of Conceptual Art. During that time, Tepper investigated a variety of dematerialized approaches to art. He began a long period of exploratory ventures that included video, performance, photographic narrative, and stereoscopic photography. Photography later became a crucial element in the drawings, aiding his rendering of the cups. Between 1974 and 1976, Tepper used stereoscopic photography as a medium whose image existed only in the viewer’s mind, not on the picture plane. Video gave Tepper the opportunity to explore real time narration, story telling and humor.
For one video tape, Tepper went on a diet. The diet failed, but the tape was a success. Later in 1974-1975, Tepper actually did lose 100 lbs. and from this experience he saved the belt which recorded the inches lost as added notches.
This was the beginning of animism in Tepper’s work. At the time that Tepper was physically altering his body for reasons having nothing to do with art, body art as practiced by Dennis Oppenheim, Vito Acconci and Chris Burden was at its height. The documentation of weight loss through an object, the belt, was like a remnant of a performance. Tepper realized that the belt had the ability to tell a story. The life and soul of the artist were reflected in the belt’s extra notches. This marked a significant juncture in Tepper’s career. Around 1975 he began to be aware of the ability of an object to suggest action, feelings, ideas, history and, especially, generate a powerful phantom presence of persons who either owned or used that object. The belt, while not created as an art piece, performed exactly this narrative function.
Tepper’s first drawing of a cup, Idea Drawing for Flawed Cup, 1975, used this idea of the powerful object. The cup pictured in this drawing had been pilfered from the University of Washington while Tepper was a graduate student. “It was a standard Syracuse china coffee cup. However, it has a crooked handle.” And as Tepper has said, “I was excited by this cup because it had an imperfection. It was a machine made product that was not perfect.” Like the belt with those notches, the cup, although machine made, was transformed by a human being. Tepper photographed the found up with a stereo camera, hoping to highlight the imperfection, and thus show the human, fallible element of the process which had manufactured this coffee cup.
Tepper is concerned with the beauty that reveals itself at the moment when objects are on the verge of disaster or falling apart. He extracts human qualities from these objects. It was not until 1976 that Tepper made his first mold of this cup and it was at least another year before the first successful porcelain cup was executed. Tepper’s technique involves making a cast of the cup, intentionally warping and cracking it, piecing it together and finally sanding it until it is paper thin. “I wanted it to look really old, like it was the cup’s last cup of coffee, and had just been used up. The cup has to have age, and it has to look like it’s been worn down, and has seen something and has lived to tell about it.”
All of Tepper’s cups have been cast [n.b: as of this writing, 1983] from either this mold or and enlarged version of the same shape which he realized in 1981. He developed a technique of pouring alternating layers of colored (usually black and white) porcelain which after delicate sanding become translucent and reveal abstract forms between the cups’ layers.
The cups’ ability to capture and play with light animates them. Their appearances are malleable and are greatly influenced by their environment. These cups must have an animistic presence to succeed – they must rival the presence of objects that have withstood years of experience. They communicate more immediately, but in a more abstract fashion that do Tepper’s drawings, and demonstrate Tepper’s renewed belief in the eloquence of a traditional art object.
Tepper’s first drawing, Idea Drawing for Flawed Cup, was intended as an exercise for himself. This drawing brought together the disparate elements of his earlier art: ceramics, narrative, and an awareness of process. In Idea Drawing for Flawed Cup, Tepper’s interest in the cup’s genesis is related in the first person narrative: “I started this drawing because I noticed the handle was put on crooked. At that time I figured that the guy who worked in the factory was thinking of something other than his job when he put it on. Drawing each square I tried not to make his mistakes.” † Tepper used a grid in this drawing, deliberately covering all squares adjacent to the one he was drawing. This produced a deliberately skewed representation, turning an academic technique into a means of heightening the presence of the drawing as an object. Tepper’s adoption of the grid was influenced not only by its currency in other art but by the fact that his girlfriend at that time was a professional restorer of rugs and quilts. The diaristic notations in and around the drawing concentrate on personal events which distracted the artist and are used both as an apology for, and to focus attention on, the formal imperfection of the drawing.
This drawing was drawn in a notebook. Tepper created small notebook drawings from 1975-77. In 1977 he began to draw on a larger scale on a drawing table, with exhibition in mind. Since 1980 he has also created large scale wall drawings, sometimes composed of multiple panels.
In retrospect, Tepper’s adoption of written narrative in 1975 is not surprising. Many artists in the mid 70s, from such diverse backgrounds as the linguistic orientation of Baldessari and the psychological orientation of Acconci, adopted narratives in their work in conjunction with visual imagery. Tepper at the time was reading widely, and found confirmation for his ideas in the novels of William Burroughs, Louis Ferdinand Celine, and in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy. The anxiety that pervades these writers’ texts is a major theme in Tepper’s drawings. This sense of anxiety and tension has influenced the rough look of the drawings themselves, and has the inspiration of such non-object-oriented artists as Duchamp.
Many of the formal elements of the Idea Drawing have remained constant in Tepper’s art. The use of the grid has been superseded by dividing the drawing into concentric circles. Tepper still draws each area without reference to adjacent areas, allowing greater concentration and expressing the discrete moment at which the area was drawn. He aims to create not an optically unified image, but a cohesive one through a fractured evocation of the object. The diaristic notations not only heighten the immediacy of the individual drawn area, but the document the slow tedious method by which Tepper draws. In conjunction with the drawings are texts employing a range of voices. Tepper’s earliest narratives were impersonal, almost journalistic; first person narratives soon followed; finally came the narratives in which the objects speak.
In the drawing Confidence Man, 1978-79, the artist shares the narration with the cup itself. It was Tepper’s intention to have the cup be the narrator in order to avoid being directly responsible for what was being said. The object is doing the talking, not the artist. It is as if the cup has been listening to the conversation that has been taking place over it.
In Confidence Man, this text appears: “…unfortunately he lost interest in his product years ago, but has been so dependent on the success of his method he is afraid of giving it up or changing it. His confidence, like the cup, is not all black or all white.” †
The quote relates to Tepper’s rejection of facility and his recognition of how easy it is to settle into a comfortable groove. He makes clear his rejection of complacency, of slickness, of over-determination, and of comfort. He is laying down his theme of risk taking: allowing things to happen (e.g., drawing without an awareness of the next square), changing one’s life, living dangerously (e.g., sanding the cup so thing that it almost breaks). This is present in the text of Confidence Man, a philosophy clearly stated.
Although Hat Magic, 1979, like confidence Man, and Complaining Cup, 1980, can be put into the category of small drawings, Hat Magic is on the cusp between notebook drawings and works done with exhibition space in mind. It is drawn on a larger scale. In Hat Magic, the same intensity is brought to bear upon the drawing of each individual square as in the smaller drawings. As the scale moves up, the stroke and touch of the artist’s application of the graphite are also increased in scale. Hat Magic is a summation drawing that does not employ new means, but shows sophistication and confidence on the part of the artist in the use of techniques and ideas developed in the period of 1975-1978.
Hat Magic departs from previous drawings in the extensive use of short stories which are placed upon the image itself. The narrative text is presented in three lengthy chapters underneath the depiction of Tepper’s cowboy hat and the original found cup. The hat is used animistically like the cup, having its own power, soul, life and magic. Tepper, as the narrator, discusses the tenuousness of animistic power and his worry that this power may diminish if paid too much attention to. When Tepper wore this hat, people treated him differently. Their perception of Tepper was changed, not merely because he was wearing a different article of clothing that made him appear differently, but because of the aura of the hat. The story goes on the tell of the fragility of this aura. When Tepper decides to block the hat differently, the magic is lost. The spell is broken as with some fetishistic object.
The cup that is pictured in Heart Cup, 1978, was cast from the mold of the original cup. At the time Tepper made this cup he was ending a personal relationship. As he sanded the cup, heart shapes began to appear within its layers of colored porcelain. For the first time, one of Tepper’s fabricated cups seemed to generate a powerful, specific emotional presence and dictate what kind of story it would tell.
The text for the Heart Cup, 1979, narrates the story of a friend “whose thoughts were on a love affair that had ended, never to be regained.” † A second story describes the relationship between Tepper’s own experience at that time and the process of making the cup. In the text, the cup reveals its hearts as he hears the sorrowful story from his friend. Just as the story deals with disjunction, so does the drawing. The checkered tablecloth upon which the cup rests does not line up with the grid of the drawing, creating an especially fractured view. The representation of cup and tablecloth is further skewed by a large heart shape which Tepper has arbitrarily laid over the cup. The resulting drawing is extremely touching, combining strong narrative and visual elements. It is as if Tepper thrived on adversity, using it to fuel his art.
With Complaining Cup, 1980, a narrator tells a story of a conversation between a mother and daughter who are arguing over a cup of coffee. In the second part of the text, the narrator changes. It is the cup itself who explains its problems. “I am the cup and I’ve got problems too… theirs are nothing compared to mine…”†
The cup goes on to tell that he will soon be replaced. The cup’s worn and deteriorated condition is not appreciated. Finally, the cup comments upon the artist by saying, “He places me off to the side and slightly off the page and…”† The cup feels downgraded, feels merely being used for formal ornamental purposes. He also feels his best side has been left out. In the drawing of the Complaining Cup, the left side of the drawing consists of a beautifully patterned, lacy tablecloth. Much to the cup’s disdain, the pattern on the tablecloth is given too much prominence. Like so many of the people in Tepper’s stories, the cup is discontented and vocal about it.
While Tepper was working on Why Doesn’t It Ring?, 1980, he was also planning a move to New York. At this time he was also making plans for a one-person exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum. No doubt the bold shift in scale was accelerated by his realization that it was time to move from a more intimate narrative to larger, more public statements. Why Doesn’t It Ring? marks a major shift in scale, but not a dramatic change in approach. The image of the telephone is exquisitely rendered, with special care lavished on the coil between the receiver and the instrument box itself. Although the telephone drawing is very large by Tepper’s standards, it is rendered in the fastidious technique of his medium-sized drawings. During the process of creating the telephone drawing, Tepper experimented with incorporation words on this new expanded scale. Typographic considerations manifest themselves alongside the larger scale of the entire text. The words maintain the stylistically scrawled manner of the diaristic aspects of the drawing. The effect of these words is jarring, however. The steadily diminishing scale of the words is reminiscent of a tabloid newspaper or an eyechart. Tepper’s words are no longer a scrawl, but a self-conscious depiction of a scrawl. The text is less intimate, more of a public utterance.
The text itself represents a high point in Tepper’s celebration of anxiety as a motivation factor. Tepper demonstrates that a minor aggravation can become an overwhelming psychic obsession. This text, unlike the texts that preceded Hat Magic, was developed by Tepper over a relatively long period of time and was subjected to extensive editing. As Tepper’s drawings have become graphically bolder, his texts have become more incisive.
Tepper’s drawing Big Ear or Big Mouth, 1981-82, again depicts a coffee cup but in a radically new fashion. The work is extremely large, composed of four separate pieces of paper, uses concentric circles rather than a grid, and features a more gestural drawing approach utilizing white charcoal on black paper. Tepper drew the cup as if he were viewing it from above, giving the cup the appearance of a big ear listening or a big mouth speaking. This point of view, combined with the concentric circles, gives this drawing a mandala-like graphic quality. As this drawing is borderless, the texts are interspersed throughout the image. They are conversational in tone, as if casually passing over the morning’s first cup of coffee. The matter of fact nature of these texts contrasts greatly with Tepper’s next drawing, He Is Thinking…”I’ll get even, just wait!”, 1982. The drama Tepper sets up in the text begins with the purported calmness, distance from problems, and freedom from restraint. This is juxtaposed with the final line that dispels all notions of tranquility. “…A smile begins to appear on his face… He is thinking…I’ll get even …just wait!” † This is the false calm created by the prospect of revenge rather than that of harmony with life.
Tepper, like many artists today, is not aligned to any one medium. His allegiance is to concepts and to the cross-fertilization that results from working in many media. He endows his creations with a powerful presence, the presence that results from an object having borne witness through time. His best creations become animistic, like his best subject matter. They are full of experience, not empty perfection. “In the process of making art I like to know my mistakes as well as my successes. If my art is too perfect, then the viewer is missing a lot of experience, a lot of life, like if you shut out the world to reach a goal. My idea of powerful art would be a book that was about someone contracting a disease, which would give the reader the disease and make him die. Art should have that kind of powerful effect.”
All quotes are taken from an interview between the author and Irvin Tepper on February 26, 1983
This essay first appeared in the 1983 catalogue Irvin Tepper: Cups, Drawings, Stories, Newport Harbor Art Museum, and is reprinted here courtesy of the author. The author wishes to express his thanks to Marc Freidus for his assistance in the preparation of his essay. The author further wishes to express his thanks to Irv Tepper for his generosity and willingness to be interviewed.
† Text from drawings.