Non-Standard: Irv Tepper’s Oppositional Cups

Janet Koplos Senior Editor
Art in America
New York, NY

Irv Tepper has a collection of restaurant china cups.  They line the kitchen wall of his SoHo studio in an abstract arrangement of sets and families and unique examples, while more pile up on shelves.  Looking at his art works, it seems obvious that these thick, sturdy collected cups have not just influenced but totally determined the cups that have long been his ceramic subject matter.  He’s gone elsewhere in other artistic materials, but in clay, for Tepper, restaurant-china cups rule.

More or less.

While the cups he makes have a general shape that’s easy to recognize, in fact Tepper contradicts nearly every characteristic of restaurant china.  What is the utilitarian stock of diners if not chip- and breakage-resistant, neutral in color, balanced and comfortable in contour?  Tepper’s cups are none of those.  His story – and Tepper is very fond of stories – is that he was initially fascinated by a mass-produced cup that had a crooked handle:  somehow, this standardized form was not standard.  It had been made imperfectly.  Imperfection is a surprise, a divergence – and therefore more visually intriguing than perfection, which matches a given expectation.  Tepper chooses imperfection for its formal interest and for its implications.

His persistent theme has been the broken cup – but not broken as a restaurant china cup would be, in shards.  Tepper’s cups are perforated, gashed, sliced, squashed.  Damage and distortion contradict the notion of sturdiness and suggest that the ceramic wall is simply a membrane, as thin and vulnerable as skin.  Light cast upon Tepper’s cups endorses this impression, for the cup walls are largely translucent, not bluntly opaque like diner cups.

Besides that, the details of form are not as much like restaurant china as they first seem.  Tepper’s rim is a sharp-edged shelf, not rounded and continuous so as to be comfortable for the finger.  What these shapes do, instead of yielding to user convenience, is aspire to abstract or ideal form.  Tepper’s cups are not service pieces but pure shapes that detach themselves from everyday reality.  They encourage viewers to see them as passages to a contemplative reality, as rings floating in space, usually at a steady perpendicular relationship to each other but most often not steady in relation to tabletop or onlooker.  Instability is another typical feature of Tepper’s cups.

The works violate restaurant china conventions in still another way: color.  Where the china is usually a bland off-white or a robust, healthy solid hue, perhaps embellished with a logo or souvenir scene, Tepper’s cups are foggy white or a mottled black and white reminiscent of dyed patterned fabric or abraded paint.  His combination of opposites – the all-color of black and the no-color of white – could seem dispassionate and noncommittal, but that would be out of character for Tepper.  Opposites of course, are also metaphoric.

The nine porcelain cup works of The Happy Rooms of Mystery series, dated 1991 to 2001, are given titles that imply states, relationships, or events.  Tepper’s literary inclinations, primarily expressed in his drawings with texts, are also given vent in these titles.  There is seldom a direct correspondence between words and form, or any sense of illustration.  The words are simply provocative fragments that encourage viewers’ imaginative openness to the work.  The works include one, two or three cups, and sometimes saucers.

Eva’s Enigma, with its single bashed cup resting on part of a lurching rim and broken handle, encourages a view deep within the pale, soft, translucent clay, as if into a personal space.  They Don’t Know Why They Like Each Other, on the other hand, consists of three cups and one saucer, stacked totem-pole fashion.  The base cup is rim down, the middle one is smashed over it, the saucer flares out like an Elizabethan ruff, and the top cup is relatively intact.  The whole violent, drunken assembly is white with just a few fine black lines that remind the viewer of Tepper’s consistent interest in drawing.  Cups in Trouble…Perfectly pushes the notion of violence even further with two cups and saucers forced together.  One cup is rim down and the other more or less on its side; the saucers seem to flop against each other as softly as elephant ears.    In this work, the black and white opposites are mediated by gray streaks and waves in effects somewhat more open and languorous than marbling.  The result is both elegant and sensuous, particularly if one closely studies the folds and bends that recall the clay’s previous softness, and notes how the gray trails off like a wisp of smoke.

In these three examples, one sees a spectrum of implications, from brutality to eroticism, from unity to destruction.  Tepper has taken a quotidian, bourgeois form, one seldom noticed in particular, one designed for convenience and economy, and turned it into an image of damage and instability and at the same time an image of endurance, transformation and perhaps even purity.

It’s possible to ascribe his selection of ideas to his times:  for instance, his serial study of a standard form relates to Minimalism, and his interest in a common commercial commodity to Pop art, both of which were leading-edge expressions of the ‘60s, when Tepper was in art school.  The contrast of the broken and the ideal also could be seen as relating to the tenor of the ‘60s, with its student rage and utopian dreams.  However, Tepper certainly doesn’t fit in any such neat box, as his other works suggest.  His unorthodox shifting from industrial design to sculpture, from ceramics to bronze, implies instead a kind of restlessness, even as his degree of fidelity to the cup form seems unprecedented.  One is left with respect for his curiosity, his obsessiveness, and the rich implications of the combination of commodity, ideal and damage.  His works in bronze, several of which are included in this exhibition, continue and extend this given cup imagery with new interests in patina.  Particularly notable are the tiny archeological fragment called …But Not Out, the rim of which hangs in the air like an outline, and Table Ready, two tattered cups stacked base to base.  All these works embody a range of references and open up to an even larger imaginative realm.