Sculptor Beverly Pepper Is the Art World's 'Mamma Internazionale'
For most people, hopping around the globe by jet would be a sure formula for future shock. But not for Beverly Pepper, an American sculptor who divides her time between New York and a restored 14th-century castle in central Italy. “I’m so used to living on both sides of the ocean,” she says, “I just live in present shock.”
In the process, Pepper, 50, has managed to earn an international reputation. Her monumental tent shapes and cantilevered constructions decorate cities from Rome to Dallas, and her newest works currently adorn Hammarskjold Plaza in Manhattan. Even these are peripatetic; after Labor Day they will travel to museums in five cities in the American Southwest and Northwest.
“I’m deeply American,” insists the ginger-haired artist, who speaks fluent Italian and English with a dash of Brooklynese. “I’m like a wanderer, an explorer.” Indeed, Pepper spends a third of the year working in America, usually setting up housekeeping with pals. The rest of the time she and husband Curtis (“Bill”) Pepper, a 54-year-old former Newsweek correspondent now penning his fourth book, live in their revamped castle outside Torre Gentile, a small Etruscan town about an hour and a half north of Rome.
In a setting straight out of a quattrocento painting, Pepper has built a cavernous hangar-like studio where she can weld her sculptures, assisted by local workmen and farmers (“Carlo couldn’t come today—he had to spray his grapes”). Neighbors include the likes of film director Michelangelo Antonioni, and the Peppers enjoy playing host. “We keep a fire going almost all year round,” says Beverly. “I love fire, it’s the earth mother in me.”
Her transcontinental life-style began about 26 years ago. Then an advertising executive spending all her money on psychiatrists’ fees, she decided to shuck it all, move to Europe and apply herself to her real interest—painting. It was in Rome that she met and married Bill Pepper, and while raising their two children—John, 20, now at Princeton, and Jorie, the 25-year-old wife of a Washington lawyer—Beverly also managed to write several cookbooks. One, co-authored with Gore Vidal’s secretary, Howard Austen, was called—what else?—The Myra Breckenridge Cookbook. She also made the Peppers’ apartment a lively stop-ping-off spot for conversation and cannelloni. “I planned those parties very carefully, inviting artists and writers as well as the necessary politicians,” she recalls. “Some people call me mamma internazionale.”
Her shift to metal sculpture came when she served as an apprentice to an Italian ironworker whose specialty was garden furniture—a possible explanation for the fact that Pepper’s early works were very curvy indeed. “If I’d apprenticed myself to someone making battleships, I’d be working like I am now,” she laughs. She first exhibited her welded pieces at the 1962 Spoleto Festival, which put her works alongside those by more accomplished hands such as Alexander Calder and David Smith. But it also launched her interest in the monumental pieces she does now, some weighing up to 18½ tons.
For all their massiveness, Pepper’s works are rarely threatening. Usually there is some playful area or concavity (“Okay, call it womblike”) which invites the spectator to participate. “By using the materials of technology,” she explains, “I try to make people see that technology need not be so alien.”
Her massive sculpture is also striking a responsive chord with clients. Among her present commissions are enormous sculptures for a courthouse in San Diego and a Philadelphia bank, plus a cantilevered pyramidal form for a private Beverly Hills estate. And in blueprint stage is her most ambitious project ever: an amphitheater-sized concrete sculpture that will cover one and a half acres in New Jersey and accommodate a thousand curious onlookers at a time.
“I want to get people out of buildings,” Pepper explains, “and into places where they can meet—an idea I got from all the outdoor cafes in Rome.”