Essay by Valerie Fletcher

Beverly Pepper was born in Brooklyn, New York, where she first studied painting and industrial design at the Pratt Institute. In the early 1940s, she developed geometric and biomorphic abstract styles derived from European modernists. After World War II, Pepper studied art in Paris at the studios supervised by the cubist painters Fernand Léger and André Lhote and sculptor Ossip Zadkine. In 1951 she moved permanently to Italy, near Rome, although from 1963 on she has worked part of each year in the United States, where most of her works have been exhibited and sold.

Turning from painting to sculpture in 1960, Pepper first carved in wood, a plentiful and inexpensive material. Instead of hand chisels, she preferred power tools as appropriate to the modern Machine Age. In 1962 the organizer of the music and art festival at Spoleto, Italy, invited ten sculptors to use local steel factories as their studios for a month. Of the three Americans, two were well-established masters of abstract metal constructions: Alexander Calder and David Smith. The third was Pepper, who did not yet even know how to weld. So she apprenticed herself to an ironmonger and shortly thereafter made her first steel sculpture, nearly eighteen feet tall. Thereafter, Pepper sculpted only in metal on a monumental scale, preferably for installation outdoors in urban spaces.

In the 1960s, it was virtually unprecedented for women to use the physically arduous, industrial methods of cutting and welding heavy sheets of steel. Pepper established her own well-equipped studio partly because she did not like delegating the actual work to fabricators; in this practice she was the antithesis of other sculptors working in steel who sent their compositions to be fabricated by others.

In terms of style, Pepper’s austerely geometric constructions in the mid-1960s had much in common with the disciplined geometry and systemic repetition of basic modules advocated by minimalist sculptors at the time. Like Tony Smith and Donald Judd, she composed sculptures in which a basic form, often a square or cube, was repeated in a spatial progression. By the 1980s, however, she preferred autonomous forms grouped together.

Harmonious Triad, 1982–83

In keeping with the modernist precept “less is more” (first advocated by the German-born architect Mies van der Rohe), this sculpture consists of three tall, very slender columns on a low square pedestal. Although entirely abstract, these verticals may suggest standing figures, but this was not Pepper’s intention. Here there is only an exquisite subtlety of form and placement. Her purely aesthetic goals become clear when Harmonious Triad is compared to Seymour Lipton’s sculptures Pioneer and Guardian.

Pepper’s disinterest in allusions extends to the titles of her works. The word “triad” might allude to numeric symbolism (in religion, for example, three has many associations, such as the Christian and Hindu divine trinities). But Pepper was uninterested in any references beyond pure abstraction.

Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.