Last Wednesday, artist Beverly Pepper died at 97 years old in her home in Todi, Italy. Best known for arcing sculptures made of Cor-Ten steel, Pepper was a dynamic presence and an outstanding artist revered by colleagues and peers. Below, critic Phyllis Tuchman shares some personal remembrances of her time spent with Pepper.
Beverly Pepper was a force of nature. She had more energy than anyone I have ever known. I often wondered what Bev ate for breakfast. Was there a cereal called Moxie? She had it in spades.
As a sculptor, wife, mother, and treasured friend, she often was pulled in multiple directions. But nothing fazed her. She just kept barreling along. “Bev was like a tank,” critic Barbara Rose said last week. “No one could stop her.” Or, as the artist herself once put it, “I never start with the feeling that maybe I can’t do it. I was brought up in a world where you had no choice, you had to try, there were no givens.”
As it was, Bev never seemed to tire. If she was watching television, she might also have been making a drawing—or two or three—or creating a maquette at the same time. At the drop of a hat, she could make an exquisite gourmet dinner for a few people or cook a delicious meal for 40 in her well-stocked kitchens in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood and in Todi, in Italy’s Umbrian region. When she went to the movies—a passion—she opted for films that were difficult or thought-provoking rather than merely entertaining.
Several friends can attest that she was a gifted matchmaker. And as Dennis Redmont, a former Associated Press bureau chief in Rome, recalled the other day, “She was a brilliant conversationalist.” Listening to her stories, many people sat dumbstruck, their mouths wide open. Similarly, art dealer James Barron said, “She had a hell of a laugh and knew how to tell a joke; then, she would lean forward and say something deeply meaningful. There would be a twinkle in her eye and her eyebrow would lift.” Sometimes, everyone laughed so hard, tears rolled down their faces, even her own.
At 97, Bev outlived her dearest friends. For many, she’d been “their person.” Lately, she was surrounded by a younger crowd who viewed her as a surrogate mother. Her actual daughter is Jorie Graham, the distinguished Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant; and her son John is a theater director and photographer. Curtis Bill Pepper, whom she married in 1949 and who died six years ago, was an admired journalist who ran a Newsweek bureau from Rome.
Bev had all sorts of friends: artists, both established and emergent, who practiced a range of styles; bold-name movie stars and directors; high-powered American politicians; and even socialites who lived in Italy. Mother Teresa once rang the doorbell looking for her husband Bill. Since he wasn’t home, Bev, dressed in her welding clothes, sat with her. Once, she mentioned to me that she’d played poker with actress Sophia Loren.
Nevertheless, according to Rose, who knew the sculptor for 50-odd years, Bev “was never grandiose.” She fit right in fabricating her sculpture—the Cor-Ten monoliths as well as older pieces—in factories in Italy and the United States. As Rose has put it, “She ate lunch with the workers, dressed like them, and, more or less, behaved like them.” They adored her.
When she was a little girl in Brooklyn, so did the Dodgers. Her mom would keep Bev out of school when there was a home game at Ebbets Field. The duo would sit in the first row by the dugout so the players could rub the child’s head for good luck. Deep into her eighties, the former Brooklynite still kept track of baseball’s goings-on.
When we lost our friend at age 97 last week, those of us who were close to Beverly were delighted she’d lived such a long—and colorful—life. A wider circle, encompassing those who own her sculpture, paintings, and works on paper or frequently pass her noble monoliths sited in major cities around the globe, also relishes her art. As Christoph Heinrich, director of the Denver Art Museum, wrote to me last Friday: “Beverly was a titan of contemporary sculpture. She transformed unruly materials into works that are monumental and delicate at the same time. Her works are landmarks in public places worldwide. We’re grateful that we have a major work of hers, the Denver Monoliths, which anchor our public plaza.”
Beverly Pepper will be dearly missed.