Third Cup of Coffee

Dr. Edmund Burke Feldman
Alumni foundation Distinguished Professor of Art
School of Art
University of Georgia
Athens, GA

Cups and saucers continuously recur in Tepper’s drawings and ceramics, which means that a single motif has given him sufficient occasion to say what he needs to say about art or life. This is not a case of an artist’s fetish. Not exactly. Tepper likes china, to be sure, but he is also interested in making a statement to the effect that an ordinary cup and saucer, phenomenological considered, constitute and arrangement of forms complex enough to support a generous array of meanings. As precedents we can consider Giorgio Morandi’s bottles and jars, Jasper Johns’ Painted Bronze Beer Cans (1969) or Meret Oppenheim’s notorious Object (1936) – her scandalous fur-lined cup. There have been other humble objects raised by artistic ingenuity to noble (or shocking) aesthetic status. Stylistically speaking, Tepper employs a few Cubist fractures of plane and slices of shape, but style for him is no more than a device for calling attention to his beloved crockery. The function of his charcoal drawing or his “real” cups and saucers is to create images that will stimulate good talk, real conversation.

The viewer stares down into a black circle of java. The coffee in its cup, resting on its saucer, surrounded by a network of oval shapes and marks, creates a powerful arrangement of slightly eccentric circles punctuated by a thick round handle, a black crescent shadow, and some random nicks and cracks. The shapes produced by the curvilinear marks and hatchings are bold and insistent, which generates an almost mesmerizing effect. The curves form ever expanding circles and arcs not unlike sound waves. Where do they come from? What impels them outward into a progressively looser linear network? It is the black fluid: its heat and aroma have been translated into a web of reverberating sound. That coarse web is the visual equivalent of the guttural noises emitted from deep down in the throat when we’re about to get a jolt of java. The “third cup” of the title may be the artist’s way of saying he is almost awake: he hears the noises of morning, he blinks at the light of day, and he is ready to grasp the porcelain cup one more time.

The central location of the cup and saucer, plus their heroic size (about fifteen times larger than normal) are declarations of focal and psychological importance. By their size they blast out the “news” like and overpowered radio: the nightlong fast is almost over, we are about to resume the daily grind. As for the repeated circles and arc, they say that the human spirit requires very little to revive it: we can be returned to life by a hot black fluid held inside a battered piece of crockery.

Notwithstanding the restorative power of black coffee, Tepper is mainly concerned with the coffee cup and saucer as and emblem, as the symbol of an idea or, in this case, a career. The utility of the crockery is incidental: it is the age, wear, and damage that counts. Which is why the saucer cracks (one in the light and on in the shadow) are so prominent. The artist is determined that we see these plain objects as worn-out heavyweights – low-priced performers, often injured and much exploited, never “contenders” in the fine arts league, yet deserving of respect because they are useful.

The aesthetic effect of Tepper’s drawing depends, first of all, on the idea and reality of cheap restaurant ware – the sort one can see in the proverbial one-arm diner. It relies, secondly, on the values inherent in craft when it is dedicated to service and durability alone. It alludes, finally, to the dignity, that is, the worthiness, of objects (and by extension, persons) whose ambition is to be honest about who they are, and reliable in what they do. The prizefighter metaphor is obvious, but it is the club fighter, not the world champion, that Tepper has in mind. The story of this drawing can also be seen in a play: Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight. There, too, a third-rate pugilist earns our respect because he never “takes a dive.” He goes down fighting.

This essay first appeared in the 1996 catalogue Large Drawings and Objects, and is reprinted here courtesy of The Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock.