SUSAN TEPPER (1943-1991)

Susan Tepper was an American figurative painter whose haunting self-portraits and expressive, often turbulent depictions of the female body in bold, vibrant colors explored identity, gender and societal issues of the late 20th century. “I am a painter of content — images of women swept into caves of isolation,” she wrote. “I paint the story of this condition.” In some of her most compelling, apparently autobiographical canvases, Tepper, perhaps contemplating her own eating disorders, employed the recurring motif of a woman’s mouth, exaggerated to a grotesque degree, obliterating the remainder of the face. An ardent feminist, Tepper rebelled against traditional expectations for women, or what she described as the “violence of the relentless pull of the ‘should.’”

Born Susan Levin in1943 in Plainfield, New Jersey, Tepper was raised in nearby Watchung. She later matriculated at Vassar College but suffered a breakdown during her freshman year and was subsequently treated in a psychiatric hospital. For the remainder of her life, she battled both anorexia and bulimia. “I wish to speak to all of us…who cannot decide just how much space we want to displace,” she wrote in her 40s, poignantly choosing a metaphor that could refer to body mass as well as progressive ideas. After her discharge, she studied art in New York City at the Art Students League, the School of Visual Art and the New York Studio School, as well as in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

In the early 1970s, Tepper completed a series of self-portraits in acrylic. Close-ups of the face with jarring slashes of bright green and blue, the self-portraits depict eyes askew and angry, open mouths bearing fierce teeth. Six of the paintings would eventually be shown alongside works by such celebrated artists as Chuck Close, Cindy Sherman and Elizabeth Peyton in Selfies and Self-Portraits of the East End, a 2015 group exhibition at the Museum at Guild Hall in East Hampton, New York.

Tepper divided her time between Manhattan, where she kept a studio at 345 East 73rd Street, and East Hampton, where she built a studio on her Georgica Road property in 1977. She worked consistently in series. There was, for instance, her “100 Women” series, in which she set herself the challenge of rendering 100 paintings, each 24”x48”, in one year, though the project lasted five, from 1978 to 1983. Tepper’s inventiveness was in full force as she experimented with collaging elements, from newsprint to Sweet ’n Low wrappers, onto her images and played with varying degrees of abstraction and representation. In one work, the figure brandishes an oven mitt; in another, her hand appears to be a lobster claw. In some, flesh gives way to mannequin-like, often monstrous bodies, with limbs connected mechanically. Starting off small, the figures in the successive paintings grew larger, literally “swallowing up” the pictorial space, as Tepper put it, before shrinking again.

She wryly described her challenge as the “Killing of the No’s: the ‘don’t do it,’ the ‘it will never work,’ the ‘what’s the point,’ the ‘it won’t be any good,’ and ‘even if it is, it won’t last.’” Her solution: “It will come through us if we move the garbage out of the way.”

In 1985 Tepper established the East Hampton Center for Contemporary Art, providing the seed money herself and funding most of the operating budget. Loosely modeled after Artists Space in Manhattan, the center presented 40 solo and group exhibitions featuring more than 350 emerging artists over the course of its six-year run.

Tepper did not, however, exhibit her own paintings at the center. Intensely shy about promoting or showing her artwork, she took part in several group exhibitions at Ashawagh Hall and Guild Hall in East Hampton and at Painting Space Gallery at PS 122 in New York City from 1984 to 1986, and she had solo exhibitions in 1989 at both the Benton Gallery in Southampton and the E.M. Donahue Gallery in New York’s East Village but otherwise rarely displayed her work publicly. She was satisfied instead for friends to view her paintings hanging in her Georgica Road house at the festive parties she threw there nearly every Friday night in summer.

After a 1986 cancer diagnosis, she retreated to East Hampton and continued to paint. In her final significant series, Tepper relinquished her colorful palette for a more somber and reductive black and white. Still focused on the human body, she ventured from the lone figure to graphic mosaics of flattened, intertwined figures heavily outlined in black on mural-like canvases.

Tepper died of cancer on February 18, 1991, at the of 47. She left behind nearly 400 paintings.

– by Julie Belcove, 2016