NEW YORK — Beverly Pepper, an acclaimed American sculptor whose work was suffused with a quicksilver lightness that belied its gargantuan scale, died on Wednesday at her home in Todi, Italy. She was 97.
Her daughter, the poet Jorie Graham, confirmed the death.
After beginning her artistic life as a painter, Ms. Pepper was known from the 1960s on as a sculptor of towering forms of iron, steel, earth and stone, often displayed outdoors.
Her art is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, and elsewhere and graces public spaces throughout the world.
Ms. Pepper, who had lived and worked principally in Italy since the 1950s, “today is one of the most serious and disciplined American artists of her generation,” art critic Robert Hughes wrote in Time magazine in 1975.
If her cherished, self-imposed exile meant that Ms. Pepper was not as widely known as some of her American contemporaries — notably the sculptor David Smith (her work was often compared to his) — then that, by her own account, was more than fine.
“People have criticized me for living abroad,” she told Hughes. “But I think isolation freed me. The idea of being part of a group still depresses me.”
It was novel enough at midcentury for a woman to make world-class art, as wide-eyed news articles from Ms. Pepper’s early career make plain.
“A painting by a 30-year-old American mother was hung among 60 works of many of the world’s greatest artists today in a Rome art show,” the Associated Press wrote about her in 1953. “The artists represented include Goya, Renoir, Manet, Matisse, and Picasso.”
It was even more novel for a woman to do sculpture — a sweaty, muscular medium long considered the most masculine of the visual arts.
It was more novel still for her to fabricate sculptures firsthand in metal foundries, a helmeted torchbearer loosing showers of sparks.
Ms. Pepper was one of the few women of her era to have done all of those things.
“I never thought of myself as a ‘female sculptor,’” she told the British newspaper The Sunday Telegraph in 2014. “Perhaps because I’m not in the art scene I don’t know I’m not supposed to be doing this!”
Ms. Pepper’s work defied handy genre classification, though with its inclination toward large, assembled forms it was most often described as constructivist.
“The abstract language of form that I have chosen has become a way to explore an interior life of feeling,” she was quoted as saying in the reference work Contemporary Artists. “In this way, my forms mirror emotional reality.”
At times the mirroring was literal. In the 1960s and later, Ms. Pepper was known for creating immense geometric pieces of polished steel with enameled interior surfaces. One was her emblematic 1967 sculpture “Zig-Zag,” comprising three square frames conjoined at angles; it functions as a many-planed reflective surface, variously revealing viewer and surroundings.
“The polished mirror surface has two distinct uses: One is to envelop the environment so that in a certain light the sculpture appears to absorb the landscape or the landscape absorbs the sculpture,” she wrote of “Zig-Zag,” which is in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. “The essential attempt was to have a continuity between the work and the environment, the environment and the work.”
Ms. Pepper was later one of the first artists to work in Cor-Ten steel, which develops a natural sepia patina that resembles rust.
She also built architectural forms that seemed to rise organically from the earth; they often combined industrial materials with natural elements like pressed earth or stone.
Among the best known of these is “Land Canal — Hillside,” a 265-foot-long installation from the 1970s consisting of rakishly tilted pyramids of Cor-Ten and grassy earth, set atop a median strip in Dallas and designed to be glimpsed from changing vantage points by passing motorists.
Still later, she made elongated, totemic sculptures of cast iron that tower watchfully over their surroundings.
Among her best-known outdoor installations are “Manhattan Sentinels,” a group of four cast-iron columns in front of 26 Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan; “Sol i Ombra Park” in Barcelona, which features undulating tiled pyramids in a landscaped setting; and “The Todi Columns,” four steel uprights first erected in 1979 and reproduced and reinstalled in 2019 in the Piazza del Popolo in Todi, the Umbrian town where she had long made her home.
For structures that could rise to more than 30 feet and whose weight was measured in tons, Ms. Pepper’s sculptures possessed an unexpected ethereal quality.
Perhaps none of her monumental work, and none of its mystery, would have arisen at all, had it not been for an incident more than 50 years ago, when, drawing on her inborn Brooklyn moxie, she lied about being able to weld.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Pratt, she worked, miserably, as an art director for New York advertising agencies. She took night classes at Brooklyn College, studying art theory with the painter Gyorgy Kepes.
In the late 1940s, after an early marriage, to Lawrence Gussin, had ended in divorce, and unable to endure advertising any longer, she decamped to Europe.
Her arrival in Paris “was an amazing experience,” she said in an interview with The New York Times magazine T in 2019. “I felt like Eve — I had just discovered that I was naked.” She would make her career as a painter for the next decade.
She married Curtis Bill Pepper, a journalist, in 1949, and in the early 1950s settled with him in Rome.
In 1960, visiting Angkor Wat, the vast temple complex in Cambodia, Ms. Pepper became enthralled by the possibilities of monumental sculpture. Her earliest pieces were carved out of fallen trees.
Not long after, she was asked to take part in the Festival of Two Worlds, to be held in Spoleto, Italy, in 1962. The festival would include an exhibition of work by major sculptors, among them Smith, Henry Moore, and Alexander Calder.
There was one condition: She had to know how to weld so that she could fabricate work with the other artists in a participating Italian steel plant.
Ms. Pepper had never welded in her life.
“I was terrified,” she told The Sunday Telegraph. “But one thing I learned growing up in Brooklyn is that if you’re offered an opportunity, take it. You don’t have to be qualified. You just have to have the chutzpah to face all the possible downfalls.”
She took an apprenticeship in an Italian metal foundry and learned to weld.
Her sculpture “Il Dono di Icaro” (“The Gift of Icarus”) — an iron-and-steel piece comprising a slender standard crowned by a horizontal band of airy, abstract scrollwork — was entered in the exhibition, and it made her reputation. It stands outdoors in Spoleto to this day.