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Beverly Pepper working in Spoleto, Italy, in 1962.
Beverly Pepper working in Spoleto, Italy, in 1962.

Beverly Pepper (1922–2020)

American-born, Italy-based artist Beverly Pepper—known for her colossal yet seemingly weightless site-specific sculptures and likely the first artist to experiment with Cor-Ten steel—has died at the age of ninety-seven. “Pepper has bodied forth a semiotics of flux, one playing out everywhere from the precarious angles of her cantilevered steel to her mutable surfaces of rusted iron,” Annie Godfrey Larmon wrote in an overview of the artist’s career for Artforum’s September 2019 issue. “[Her work] conjures a sense of unfolding that allows us to at once sustain and suspend our belief in monumentality itself.”

Born Beverly Stoll on December 20, 1922, in Brooklyn, her fine-art training began at the city’s Pratt Institute and continued at Brooklyn College, where she took night classes with painter György Kepes. In the late ’40s, after divorcing her first husband, Pepper left New York for Europe, where she studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu, immersed herself in postwar intelligentsia, married journalist Curtis Bill Pepper, and eventually settled in Rome.

Though she began her nearly six-decade-long career as a painter of social issues, Pepper began working abstractly and in three dimensions in 1960. Two years later, as one of three Americans to be included in the definitive exhibition of outdoor sculpture “Sculture nella città” (Sculptures in the City) in Spoleto, Italy, Pepper availed herself of a steel factory in the Communist town of Piombino, where she learned to weld and produced nearly two dozen works. In 1967, two years before Robert Smithson began using similar materials, and in keeping with her tendency to prefigure significant developments in American and Italian sculpture, Pepper began creating outdoor works whose brilliant mirrored surfaces reflected their surroundings. Zig-Zag, 1967, can be found in the collection of the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York—the first institution to hold a major traveling retrospective of Pepper’s work, 1986’s “Beverly Pepper: Sculpture in Place.”

In 1972, Pepper and her husband relocated to a restored medieval stone castle in Todi, Italy; the town now hosts the Beverly Pepper Sculpture Park, a permanently installed selection of twenty of her pieces dating from the 1960s to the 2000s. One of her best-known public works, Dallas Land Canal: Hillside, 1971–75, consists of pyramids of Cor-Ten steel and swaths of grass and is sited on a median strip, to be seen by passing drivers. Her totemic steel Manhattan Sentinels of 1996 still grace New York’s 26 Federal Plaza. “I work until I feel the space outside the sculpture exists,” Pepper once said. “I’ll keep going until there’s something I can’t explain that’s there. . . . These auras come from someplace else. I haven’t any idea how it works.”

In 2013, Pepper received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center. Her Todi Columns, four soaring geometric pillars of steel originally made in 1979, were reproduced in 2018 and included in the following year’s Fifty-Eighth Venice Biennale, along with a larger exhibition of her sculptures. In addition to her storied artistic output, Pepper also authored several cookbooks. She is survived by her daughter, the poet Jorie Graham; her son, John Randolph Pepper; three grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.