Beverly Pepper, a sculptor of elegantly crafted steel works that appear to gently rise upward, has died. The New York Times, which first reported the news, said that she died at her home in Todi, Italy. She was 97.
At venues around the world, but primarily in Europe and the United States, Pepper exhibited her majestic, abstract steel works in outdoor settings. They are typically monumental in scale, with some even extending hundreds of feet long, and they appear to swoop, arc, and spiral, often transforming viewers’ perception of the surrounding landscape in the process. Her sculptures are now permanently installed in locations as diverse as Barcelona, Milwaukee, Dallas, Todi, and Vilnius, Lithuania, among other places.
Speaking to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in an oral history, Pepper explained the key differences she saw between painting, which she studied, and sculpture, the medium for which she would devote her career to using: “A painting has one view. You stand in front of a painting. My sculpture is an attempt to give you a different experience as you move around it. So you have unpredictability, which is something I really try to nurture in my work.”
The heaviness and the largeness of Pepper’s large-scale sculptures has caused some observers to note how her work seemed to exist in opposition to what was expected of women artists during the 1960s. At the time, Minimalism was taking hold in New York, and its purveyors were mainly white men who crafted gigantic, cold-blooded formal experiments. Female artists were believed to create “softer” work on a smaller scale. “I never thought of myself as a ‘female sculptor,’” she said in a 2014 interview with the Sunday Telegraph in 2014.
On the occasion of Pepper’s Brooklyn Museum retrospective in 1987, critic John Russell wrote, in an otherwise negative review, that her practice “speaks for industry, for a driving ambition of the kind usually described as ‘macho’ and for a keen sense of what at any given moment is the ‘in’ thing in sculpture.”
Since 1964, Pepper’s work has been heavily reliant on Cor-Ten steel, an alloy that appears to rust after prolonged exposure to meteorological conditions. Her early use of the alloy made her one of the first artists to do so, and some scholars believe that her sculptures made using it may even precede similar ones by her male contemporaries Barnett Newman and Richard Serra. (Pepper herself believed she was the first to make use of Cor-Ten steel for art.) She long prized Cor-Ten’s ability to change over time—so much so that, in a recent T: The New York Times Style Magazine profile, she even joked about having her assistants urinate on the sculptures to force a coloristic shift into being.
Pepper’s interest in industrial materials might have aligned her with the Minimalists, and her fascination with natural settings may have had something in common with the Land artists, but she was never fit cleanly into either group, possibly because she was based in Italy when many of the purveyors of these movements were in New York and possibly because, unlike most artists involved with both styles, she was not a man. Although she showed for years with prestigious enterprises like André Emmerich Gallery and Marlborough Gallery, both in New York, and although she appeared in the 1972 Venice Biennale in Italy, she was not as well-known as her colleagues for much of her career.
Within the last few years, however, her work became the subject of widespread fascination. In 2016, she donated her archive to the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Recent solo shows at Marlborough and L.A.’s Kayne Griffin Corcoran, both in 2019, brought renewed interest to her work the U.S.’s two main art capitals. Alongside a host of artists several generations younger than her, she showed at last year’s Venice Biennale, and a sculpture park dedicated to her work opened in Todi.
Beverly Stoll was born in 1922 in Brooklyn, New York. When she was a child, her mother created a space where she could make art. But her ambitions of becoming an artist were dashed when she was six years old—her father beat her for bringing home crayons. Instead, she went on to pursue a career in graphic design. (In college, at New York’s Pratt Institute, she was dissuaded from working with welding—a process that has since become integral to her work.)
When she was in her 20s, she traveled to Paris, where she went on to study at the prestigious Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Painter Fernand Léger, the famed modernist who envisioned humans constructed from forms that looked like industrial objects, was among her teachers. After graduating, she moved to Rome, where she met Bill Pepper, who later became her husband.
Having effectively remade herself as an artist, she started painting socialist realist pictures in Italy. Everything changed when she was 37 years old, however. In 1960, on a trip across America and Asia with her daughter, Jorie Graham, she visited the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and she found herself moved by its architecture. She knew she had to become a sculptor, and pursued that line of art-making as soon as she returned to Italy.
In 1962, Pepper participated in the famed “Sculture Nella Città” exhibition in Spoleto, Italy. In advance of it, she learned how to weld from workers at a U.S. Steel factory in Piombino. A continued relationship with the steel company brought her into contact with Cor-Ten at its New Jersey plant a couple years later.
Pepper often spoke about her experiences working on these sculptures in plain terms, describing her process as something akin to meditation. “I don’t like to get caught in any kind of mental trap when I’m working,” she told T. “I feel and see. Things fall from my mind to my hands.”