An American artist who long worked in Italy, she created towering forms whose evanescence belied their giant scale.
By Margalit Fox
Feb. 5, 2020
Beverly Pepper, an acclaimed American sculptor whose work was suffused with a quicksilver lightness that belied its gargantuan scale, died on Wednesday at her home in Todi, Italy. She was 97.
Her daughter, the poet Jorie Graham, confirmed the death.
After beginning her artistic life as a painter, Ms. Pepper was known from the 1960s on as a sculptor of towering forms of iron, steel, earth and stone, often displayed outdoors.
Her art is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art and elsewhere. It also graces public spaces throughout the world.
Ms. Pepper, who had lived and worked principally in Italy since the 1950s, “today is one of the most serious and disciplined American artists of her generation,” the art critic Robert Hughes wrote in Time magazine in 1975.
If her cherished, self-imposed exile meant that Ms. Pepper was not as widely known as some of her American contemporaries — notably the sculptor David Smith, to whose work hers was often compared — then that, by her own account, was more than fine.
“People have criticized me for living abroad,” she told Mr. Hughes. “But I think isolation freed me. The idea of being part of a group still depresses me.”
It was novel enough at midcentury for a woman to make world-class art, as wide-eyed news articles from Ms. Pepper’s early career make plain.
“A painting by a 30-year-old American mother was hung among 60 works of many of the world’s greatest artists today in a Rome art show,” The Associated Press wrote about her in 1953. “The artists represented include Goya, Renoir, Manet, Matisse and Picasso.”
It was even more novel for a woman to do sculpture — a sweaty, muscular medium long considered the most masculine of the visual arts.
It was more novel still for her to fabricate sculptures firsthand in metal foundries, a helmeted torchbearer loosing showers of sparks.
Ms. Pepper was one of the few women of her era to have done all of those things.
“I never thought of myself as a ‘female sculptor,’” she told the British newspaper The Sunday Telegraph in 2014. “Perhaps because I’m not in the art scene I don’t know I’m not supposed to be doing this!”
Ms. Pepper’s work defied handy genre classification, though with its inclination toward large, assembled forms it was most often described as constructivist.
“The abstract language of form that I have chosen has become a way to explore an interior life of feeling,” she was quoted as saying in the reference work Contemporary Artists. “In this way, my forms mirror emotional reality.”
At times the mirroring was literal. In the 1960s and later, Ms. Pepper was known for creating immense geometric pieces of polished steel with enameled interior surfaces. One was her emblematic 1967 sculpture “Zig-Zag,” comprising three square frames conjoined at angles; it functions as a many-planed reflective surface, variously revealing viewer and surroundings.
“The polished mirror surface has two distinct uses: One is to envelop the environment so that in a certain light the sculpture appears to absorb the landscape or the landscape absorbs the sculpture,” she wrote of “Zig-Zag,” which is in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. “The essential attempt was to have a continuity between the work and the environment, the environment and the work.”
Pyramids and Columns
Ms. Pepper was later one of the first artists to work in Cor-Ten steel, which develops a natural sepia patina that resembles rust.
She also built architectural forms that seemed to rise organically from the earth; they often combined industrial materials with natural elements like pressed earth or stone.
Among the best known of these is “Land Canal — Hillside,” a 265-foot-long installation from the 1970s consisting of rakishly tilted pyramids of Cor-Ten and grassy earth, set atop a median strip in Dallas and designed to be glimpsed from changing vantage points by passing motorists.
Still later, she made elongated, totemic sculptures of cast iron that tower watchfully over their surroundings.
Among her best-known outdoor installations are “Manhattan Sentinels,” a group of four cast-iron columns in front of 26 Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan; “Sol i Ombra Park” in Barcelona, which features undulating tiled pyramids in a landscaped setting; and “The Todi Columns,” four steel uprights first erected in 1979 and reproduced and reinstalled in 2019 in the Piazza del Popolo in Todi, the Umbrian town where she had long made her home.
For structures that could rise to more than 30 feet and whose weight was measured in tons, Ms. Pepper’s sculptures possessed an unexpected ethereal quality.
“The logic of solid forms is everywhere contradicted by the logic of reflection,” The Christian Science Monitor wrote of her work in 1969.
She created each piece, she often said, with few preconceptions about its meaning, preferring to have interpretation arise as the viewer confronted it.
Her mirrored steel sculptures, for instance, were meant to set off a shifting contrapuntal duet between the piece and the reflected observer. A third contrapuntal part was played by the sculpture’s interaction with the land from which it arose.
Such works, Ms. Pepper said, “relate to the mystery of the unseen inside of things.”
Perhaps none of her monumental work, and none of its mystery, would have arisen at all, had it not been for an incident more than 50 years ago, when, drawing on her inborn Brooklyn moxie, she lied about being able to weld.
The daughter of Irwin and Beatrice (Hornstein) Stoll, Beverly Stoll was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 20, 1922, and grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood there. Her father sold carpet and linoleum and later fur coats; her mother took in laundry and was an activist for the N.A.A.C.P.
Beverly wanted to make art from the time she was a child. After graduating from James Madison High School in Brooklyn, she entered the Pratt Institute, in the same borough, where she studied industrial and advertising design.
Already fascinated with construction, she tried to enroll in an engineering course there but was denied: Engineering, she was told, was no fit subject for a woman.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Pratt, she worked, miserably, as an art director for New York advertising agencies. She took night classes at Brooklyn College, studying art theory with the painter Gyorgy Kepes.
In the late 1940s, after an early marriage, to Lawrence Gussin, had ended in divorce, and unable to endure advertising any longer, she decamped to Europe.
In Paris, she studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu and painting in the ateliers of André Lhote and Fernand Léger. Her arrival in Paris “was an amazing experience,” she said in an interview with The New York Times magazine T in 2019. “I felt like Eve — I had just discovered that I was naked.” She would make her career as a painter for the next decade.
She married Curtis Bill Pepper, a journalist, in 1949, and in the early 1950s settled with him in Rome, where he became Newsweek’s Mediterranean bureau chief. In Rome, the couple’s luminous social circle included Gore Vidal and Federico Fellini.
Ms. Pepper’s early paintings were largely in the social realist vein. One lauded work, inspired by her immigrant Jewish grandparents and hung in the 1953 Rome exhibition, portrayed an elderly man and woman eating from the same dish. Yet she came to find the medium unfulfilling.
“Once, as a painter, I tried to portray social problems,” she told Sculpture magazine in 2013. “It was a failure.”
Inspired at Angkor Wat
In 1960, visiting Angkor Wat, the vast temple complex in Cambodia, Ms. Pepper became enthralled by the possibilities of monumental sculpture. Her earliest pieces were carved out of fallen trees from her Rome garden.
Not long after, she was asked to take part in the Festival of Two Worlds, to be held in Spoleto, Italy, in 1962. The festival would include an exhibition of work by major sculptors, among them Mr. Smith, Henry Moore and Alexander Calder.
There was one condition: She had to know how to weld so that she could fabricate work with the other artists in a participating Italian steel plant.
Ms. Pepper had never welded in her life.
“I was terrified,” she told The Sunday Telegraph. “But one thing I learned growing up in Brooklyn is that if you’re offered an opportunity, take it. You don’t have to be qualified. You just have to have the chutzpah to face all the possible downfalls.”
She took an apprenticeship in an Italian metal foundry and learned to weld.
Her sculpture “Il Dono di Icaro” (“The Gift of Icarus”) — an iron-and-steel piece comprising a slender standard crowned by a horizontal band of airy, abstract scrollwork — was entered in the exhibition, and it made her reputation. It stands outdoors in Spoleto to this day.
In the early 1970s, Ms. Pepper and her husband moved to Umbria, where they bought and restored a derelict 14th-century castle near Todi, a medieval hill town. The land, the architecture and the stillness, she said, helped make her work possible, as did the hangarlike studio, staffed with local workmen, that she was able to erect nearby.
“I am committed to permanence in my work as part of defying the violent world of alienation and threat,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1976. “I need the sense of permanence in my life — and Umbria has that quality of history fused into the future.”
Over the coming decades she divided her time between Italy and a home and studio in the TriBeCa neighborhood of Manhattan. She made work in factories on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Steel and Alloy Tank Company in Newark and the United States Steel Plant in Conshohocken, Pa., just northwest of Philadelphia.
Her art from these years also includes “Alpha,” an outdoor sculpture of orange-painted steel encompassing sharply angled, interleaved tentlike forms, displayed at the Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis. She also made small sculptures designed for the tabletop.
“You have to listen to the materials,” she told T magazine. “Bronze is very controlled; metal — anything you can bend to your will — you have to figure out how to make warmth come to it. Each material has its own kind of aliveness.”
Aging but Still Working
Some critics dismissed Ms. Pepper’s art as derivative, comparing her large geometric pieces to those of Mr. Smith, a close friend, and her later columnar sculptures to the work of Brancusi.
But most praised her spatial daring, among them Mr. Hughes, who in his 1975 article described “Alpha” as “arguably one of the most successful pieces of monumental sculpture produced by an American in the past decade.”
He added: “No photograph can convey the peculiar intricacy of space that it develops from what seems a simple formula of two skewed triangular prisms, one inside the other.”
Ms. Pepper’s husband died in 2014. In addition to her daughter, Ms. Graham, who won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, she is survived by a son, John Randolph Pepper, an actor, director and photographer; three grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
Among Ms. Pepper’s many laurels was a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center.
She also wrote several cookbooks, rooted both in her Cordon Bleu training and in the perennial insolvency that is the artist’s lot. (“She figured out that to test recipes,” the publisher “would have to pay for the food for about a year,” Ms. Graham said in an interview for this obituary in 2017.)
They include “The Glamour Magazine After Five Cookbook” (1952); “See Rome and Eat” (1960), with John Hobart; and “The Myra Breckinridge Cookbook” (1970), written with Mr. Vidal’s companion, Howard Austen, and inspired by Mr. Vidal’s salacious satirical novel of 1968.
Ms. Pepper continued making sculpture well into old age, including immense curvilinear forms of rust-colored Cor-Ten, though she left the actual fabrication to younger assistants.
Early last year, the Kayne Griffin Corcoran gallery in Los Angeles featured a retrospective of Ms. Pepper’s smaller-scale early work, and an exhibition of more recent Cor-Ten works opened at Marlborough’s downtown New York gallery. In September, the Beverly Pepper Sculpture Park opened in Todi, featuring works donated by the artist.
She also completed construction of a new, sculptural amphitheater for the city of L’Aquila, in the Abruzzo region of Italy, which was devastated by an earthquake in 2009.
It was precisely this kind of work, she told The Sunday Telegraph in 2014, that she felt she had been born to do.
“Other women want diamonds and fur coats,” Ms. Pepper said. “I just want to live in a factory.”
Margalit Fox is a former senior writer on the obituaries desk at The Times. She was previously an editor at the Book Review. She has written the send-offs of some of the best-known cultural figures of our era, including Betty Friedan, Maya Angelou and Seamus Heaney.