Sacred Vessels

James Harithas
Director, Art Car and ACME Museums
Houston, TX

Irvin Tepper’s best known contributions to contemporary art are the ceramics and the bronzes, drawings, and photographs inspired by the common coffee cup. Tepper’s cups are transformed into sacred vessels because, although broken, they are redeemed by the artist’s aesthetic and by the rightness of their form, the purity of their color, and the beauty of their porcelain surfaces.

To create his cups, Tepper relies on intuition, gesture, ritual, and his instinct for the spiritual. His unique approach also derives from his mastery of ceramic technique, his free use of accident, his constant experimentation with a broad range of media, and his striving to improve his inner life.

His dynamic, black and white cup photographs project an atmosphere of mystery. The artist photographs the cups against an unusual background of burnt and mutilated cardboard, so that there is a startling illusion of movement.

Tepper’s masterful drawings are mandala-like evocations of the cup’s place at the center of his artistic universe. The cup represents the union of opposites; that is, it structures emptiness and contains fullness. Tepper’s cups are not useful as containers of anything but his profound visual insights and spiritual aspirations. The drawings are the artist’s painstaking meditations on space and linear structure. The portrait heads that he sometimes draws and his usual subject, the cups, become transcendent through linear multi-faceted constructs that relate Native American spirit lines to Cubist structure.

Besides being an expression of his spiritual self, the cups reflect Tepper’s world-view. They are metaphors for our bombed and broken world, a world that is rejuvenated by the artist’s skill and his abstract approach to form. The influence of Peter Voulkos is evident in Tepper’s art. Voulkos elevated punctured and broken ceramic sculpture into urgent masterpieces of personal expression. Tepper’s vision is more intimate, his materials more fragile, and his sense of form far less traditional.

His other photographic projects are of a different order altogether, revealing a social or political reference. His photographs of sleeping homeless men and women show them at their most vulnerable, making them less of a threat. His handsome photographs of hand-painted food signs reveal the American fixation on fast food; at the same time, they are a record of an authentic folk art tradition. Tepper has also documented the classic American car in Cuba and the destruction of the World Trade Center, in addition to many hundreds of works of art of professional interest to himself and for use as teaching aids.

Unlike most artists who rarely stray far from the art world, Tepper is an inveterate traveler. He has crisscrossed the American continent, wandered the back-roads of the Far West, and explored the Third World. Out of a trip to Central America came a series of photographs that not only document the poverty of the indigenous people of the war-torn region but also reveal the horror of the military occupation of their villages. Once when surrounded by hostile soldiers with their weapons at the ready, Tepper continued taking their pictures. Even though his life was in danger, he would not be deterred from pursuing his art.

In or outside of his studio, Tepper works incessantly at making art. He excels in an impressive range of media: ceramics, video, painting, photography, sculpture, and drawing. He is also an innovative collector, connoisseur, writer, and art professor. His struggle for inner clarity is fundamental to his work as an artist, and to his vision as a teacher and as man of the world. His sacred vessels are an important contribution to the art of his time, precisely because of their beauty as works of art and their power as symbols of rejuvenation.