Brooklyn-born artist Beverly Pepper was known for her land art and monumental site-specific cast iron and steel sculptures. She was one of the first sculptors to use Cor-Ten steel, the industrial alloy which acquires a painterly sepia patina. “And it’s always gripping to work in a material that has been such a crucial part of human culture from the literal Iron Age to the great periods of industrial construction and beyond.”
Her eclectic works didn’t always adhere to the rigid tenets of Minimalism. Her sensitivity to history, ecology, and community contrasted with the male-dominated, earth-gouging excavations of land art made in remote locations. While some of her earthworks and land art were made in remote settings, she also made art for towns and cities in the United States and Europe.
Pepper studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and worked as a commercial art director. She studied at Cooper Union and the Art Students League. In 1948, she moved to Paris to study with the artist Andre Lhote and Fernand Leger before making her home in Italy with her husband and their three-month old daughter.
She taught herself to weld steel by working in American factories in the 1960s where she was often the only woman present. Being a woman in the male-dominated world of steel sculpture, she became a breakthrough figure inspiring women and other female artists.
In 1964, her early iron and steel works consisted of curved organic forms. In the 1970s she made geometric steel sculptures and environmental works. The 1980s saw her making monumental steel columns which had references to architectonic structures like obelisks. “Everything in the world slowly converts into iron,” she said. “It is everywhere, even in a teardrop.”
In the 1970s, she and her husband moved to Todi, a medieval town in Umbria, where they bought and restored a 14th-century castle. She was an honorary citizen of Todi, her primary home even though she did spend time in New York. At this time Pepper experimented with “Earthbound Sculptures,” colossal structures that rose out of the earth’s surface.
She made works that were monumental in their proportions; yet they literally became part of the landscape. These were her ‘earthbound’ amphitheaters: “Amphisculpture” 1974-1975 at the AT&T Network Operations Center in New Jersey and others in New York’s Westchester County and Pistoia, Italy. In the same time period was her 1975-1977 “Thel” on New Hampshire’s Dartmouth campus, where cantilevered pyramids disappeared when it snowed and reappeared after the snow melted. Later earthworks from the 1980s on were the 1985 “Cromlech Glen” at Laumeier Sculpture Park in Missouri and the 1993-94 “Palingensis,” a 227-foot-long cast-iron relief embedded to a retaining wall in a Zurich hillside.
Pepper turned public spaces into dynamic meeting places. In 1979, Pepper created four monumental columns for the ancient Umbrian hill town of Todi. Her four “Todi Columns,” 1979/2019 were russet-colored steel monoliths and look as if they were from the Iron Age. Each column was between 28 to 35 feet high and weighted about eight tons. After being shown in Todi, they were exhibited in the United States before being returned to Italy for the 1996 Venice Biennale and for exhibitions in Venice and Florence. Some twenty years later from April to May, 2019, the “Todi Columns” were installed in Piazza del Popolo, one of the most beautiful squares in Italy. Later they were permanently installed in the Beverly Pepper Sculpture Park in a landscape she designed along with 16 other works of hers. In nearby Assisi, Pepper made a massive bisected curve of Cor-Ten steel, “Ascensione,” near the Basilica of St. Francis. This work stretched up to the sky.
Her works are located in cities, such as Barcelona’s 115,200-square-foot “Sol I Ombra Park,” 1987-92, which featured a cresting mound of earth covered in ceramic tiles of azulejo blue. In New York City, Pepper made her cast-iron pieces “Manhattan Sentinels” on the Federal Plaza, 1993-1996.
Her works were also located in pastoral settings, such as the 2008-10 “Hawk Hill Calgary Sentinels,” which included pyramids constructed on soil excavated from a wetland restoration project outside Calgary. One of the many ‘accidents’ of her career occurred when she discovered glacial erratics, immense angular rock slabs, on land in California and incorporated them into her “San Anselmo Monolith,” 2007-2010. She completed construction of her last “amphisculpture,” in the Italian city of L’Aquila. This work could seat a thousand people.
In 1987, she had a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, one of the largest devoted to a living sculptor by a major New York museum. She had dozens of solo and group exhibitions in the United States and Europe. In 2019, Pepper had a retrospective of smaller-scale early works in Los Angeles. In February, 2019, she had a second show of recently made monumental Cor-Ten steel sculptures – a return to the curve after years of wedges and obelisks – at New York’s Marlborough Gallery. In May of 2019 her work was shown at the Venice Biennale.
Pepper’s work is in the permanent collections of more than 40 museums in the U.S. and Europe, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Hirschhorn Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Walker Art Center.