25 Years Since Her Premature Death, East Hampton Painter and Advocate Susan Tepper Gets Her Due
“I am a painter of content—images of women swept into caves of isolation,” wrote painter Susan Tepper in the mid-1980s. “I wish to speak to all of us...who cannot decide just how much space we want to displace.” In her “Heads” series, raw, distorted faces, often dominated by a single cyclops eye and expressionistic swaths of heightened color, roil with psychological intensity. The full-scale female figures in her “100 Women” series each employ the frontal stance of a Greek kouros. Within that limitation, though, each figure can morph into mechanical-looking aliens or abstracted creatures with giant lobster claws and fierce gaping mouths; they seem to devour the space in which they are contained. Installed as a group, they look like a ragtag tribe of she-warriors. Paintings from both series go on view later this month at Tripoli Gallery in Southampton, in what will be Tepper’s first solo exhibition since her death from cancer 25 years ago at the age of 47.
“I think my mother felt that she couldn’t always speak her mind and that the paintings did it for her,” says Arielle Tepper Madover, a Tony Award winning theater and film producer, whose Broadway credits include Annie and Red and this fall Les Liaisons Dangereuses. “The world is a very different place from when she painted them. She would have loved what’s going on right now in terms of women talking about women and standing up for themselves.”
Tepper was raised in New Jersey surrounded by Impressionist artworks collected by her parents Janice and Philip Levin, who were prominent patrons of the Metropolitan Museum. She studied at the Art Students League, the School of Visual Art, and the New York Studio School, as well as the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and battled with anorexia and bulimia as an adult. Many of her figures are collaged with text spliced from tabloids proclaiming “stay young forever” or “weigh less” or with Sweet’N Low wrappers, speaking to the pressures put on women by society and themselves to physically conform.
While Tepper had a small exhibition history, including solo shows in 1989 at the Benton Gallery in Southampton and E.M. Donahue in New York, it was not something she avidly pursued. “She was very scared of what people would think of her work,” says Madover, who was 18 when her mother died and (for emotional reasons) left her studio in East Hampton untouched for more than two decades. Madover finally felt ready to inventory the almost 400 paintings and exhibit her mother’s lifework with the help of the advisory firm Hyphen, which has co-organized the Tripoli exhibition. Last summer, Tepper’s estate loaned six of her self-portraits to the exhibition “Selfies and Portraits of the East End,” including works by Eric Fischl, Joan Semmel, and Cindy Sherman, at Guild Hall in East Hampton where Tepper was a member.
While Tepper was hesitant to promote herself, she was a tireless advocate of other artists. In 1985, she co-founded the East Hampton Center for Contemporary Art as a non-profit venue for both unknown and established artists, loosely modeled on Artists Space in New York. In operation for six years until Tepper’s premature death, the center exhibited more than 350 emerging artists, giving early shows to Semmel and Petah Coyne among others who went on to have prominent careers. “The group shows that they did were at least 50-50 women to men, if not more so, which was so irregular at that time,” says Coyne, who remembers the graciousness with which Tepper accepted slides from Coyne’s artist cohort who came to the opening of her 1986 group exhibition “Personal Visions.” “She must have understood on a deep level how hard it is as an artist and how humbling it can be. She treated what these artists were giving her as a gift.”
—Hilarie M. Sheets