Disposable Icons: Zito’s Coffee Cup Portraiture

Posted on: December 9th, 2020 at 5:01 am by

Photo: Zito

Antony Zito has been a fixture of the Lower East Side art scene for decades. But it’s one of his more recent artistic pursuits that strikes a chord.

Discarded paper coffee cups are the canvas on which Zito imparts profiles of downtown luminaries. The effort began four years ago as part of the annual Acker Awards, the ceremony seven-year-old show founded by Clayton Patterson that honors the avant-garde of the East Village and Lower East Side. He was asked to contribute “small artworks” to the so-called “Acker boxes,” which are the physical award. The cups were a posthumous honor to those lost during the year prior.

When it came to inspiration, Zito fell back on a pillar of New York City life – the ubiquitous blue-and-white Greek coffee cup. It’s officially called an “Anthora,” which derives from the Greco-Roman amphora, an ancient container.

Jimmy Webb, Photo: Zito

“I wanted something that just screamed ‘New Fuckin’ York!’ the artist told us in an email. “It had to be small, it had to be found, preferably dirty, and it had to be readily available. I was standing on a corner thinking about all this when I spotted a Greek diner coffee cup squashed on the street, I knew instantly that this would be the perfect disposable icon to represent New Yorkers.”

In 1963, the Sherri Cup Company created a standard coffee cup in an effort to appeal to Greek food vendors and restaurant owners. The company’s Marketing Director (and survivor of the death camps), Leslie Buck, added the message: “We are happy to serve you.” Soon thereafter, the Anthora became synonymous with to-go cups in New York City. (The trademark is owned by the Solo Cup Company since 2004, and licenses out the design.)

Sales hit a peak of 500 million in 1994, with The New York Times describing the cups as “perhaps the most successful cup in history.” In 2003, the a ceramic version of the cup was designed and then sold by the MoMA.

Richard Hambleton, Photo: Zito

For the seventh installment of the Ackers, though, Zito is specifically avoiding the diner cup. “The variations in color and tone that I find on all the random cups I find can be really lovely to work with and these variations can strongly influence the direction I take in creating the image,” he said.

Zito sells these portraits outside of the Ackers orbit, too. There is a dedicated Etsy store, where customers can either purchase a one finished cup portrait (e.g. Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, David Byrne, Joan Jett) or custom order by submitting an image.

Alan Merrill, Photo: Zito

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