A Tribute to Beverly Pepper
It was 1965 in Rome. She was standing outside the door of painter Stephen Greene’s apartment where I was staying, huddled in the doorway crying because her mother had just died. Beverly Pepper was not good at hiding her feelings and so she didn’t try. Still tearful, she invited me to the house in Trastevere, the old bohemian part of Rome that she shared with her husband, journalist Curtis Bill Pepper, and their children, Jorie and John, and brought out big plates of food and casks of red wine. That, I found out, was how Beverly confronted tragedy. She was already a well-known artist when I met her, having moved to Italy just after World War II. At first she moved to Paris in 1948 to study with the Cubist André Lhote after studying at Cooper Union and the Art Students’ League in New York. Once she met Bill Pepper, a dashing ex-war correspondent, she followed him to Italy where he was head of Newsweek in Europe. With their wit, large personalities, and good looks, they conquered Rome together.
Beverly never wanted to be anything but an artist, indeed nothing less than a world class artist. Her ambition was as big as the monumental steel, iron, and Cor-ten works she eventually produced. Nothing scared her, not the jungles of Cambodia where she found her true artistic identity, nor the sweaty macho industrial factories where she was finally able to realize her dream of an art larger than life. Nothing about Beverly was trivial or small minded, although she could be impossible in her boundless ambition and incredible, unstoppable energy. When she died this February, after recently turning 97, she was still at it. Her studio, around which she built her house in the Umbrian countryside so that she could go to work the minute she woke up, still contained fragments, plaster maquettes, sketches, and huge preparatory drawings for new work she intended to produce like the massive Todi installation to create a trail across the entire town.
Beverly worked in a variety of materials, shiny and reflective like polished stainless steel or dark and light absorbing like Cor-ten. Almost all her forms were geometric which gave them the structural stability they needed to stand. They ranged in size from table top to industrial machines. She seemed to have an infallible sense of scale. Among the projects to be finished was an amphisculpture, a hybrid form that is both theater and sculpture that she invented. Looking at the plans for Todi made me remember the first amphisculpture, a bronze landscape work in the Fattoria di Celle, the great sculpture park created by Giuliano Gori near Florence. Performances are held inside the amphisculptures, so they were both sculpture and theater. To create Celle, Beverly had to learn bronze casting in order to produce the work in a Florentine foundry. Last year, a grand amphisculpture was opened in the town L’Aquila, to commemorate the earthquake that had virtually destroyed the ancient city. This time the materials were sand and gravel with shiny fragments scintillating in the sun from the ground below on which it is set. Its monumental proportions and triangular “wings” provide an architectural platform on which dance, theater, and concerts can be performed.
But forget the past. Beverly did not even live in the present, she lived in the future. Her current project when I visited recently was the installation of the huge Cor-ten Todi columns in the medieval plaza in the hilly town where she spent the last decades of her life. Another project was an installation at the base of the hill where Todi sits around the great Renaissance church designed by Bramante. When I visited her last year she was busy moving around pieces and molding the maquette of the hillside that leads from Bramante’s church to the medieval center of Todi where medieval knights once jousted. Surrounded by history, she was determined to become part of it.
From her friend David Smith she learned to weld heavy metal. He had come to Italy to make a work for the Spoleto Festival of Due Mondi where Beverly had also been invited to make a piece for the first important modern outdoor monumental sculpture show. The works they made are still there, near the train station in Spoleto.
My memories of Beverly as a friend and an artist are so vast I can only mention a few to give an idea of this fearless, generous, incredible, unpredictable woman. There was the time she decided to give me a party at her house in Vicolo del Cinque while persuading me to buy a farm in the country before I could speak a word of Italian in the early ’70s. I walked in the living room and saw Sofia Loren, Fellini, Ungaretti, Audrey Hepburn, Elsa Morante, Marcello Mastroianni—the entire dolce vita drinking champagne. My friend Janie C. Lee and I had set out to buy a farm in France where I did speak the language but somehow Beverly persuaded us we belonged in Umbria where she and Bill had just bought a crumbling medieval castle. She managed to get a truck and crammed me, Bill, their kids, John and Jorie—who became Pulitzer Prize winning poet Jorie Graham—art historian Edward F. Fry, Sam, their large Weimaraner, and director Michelangelo Antonioni, madly chain smoking, into it. When we finally reached Torreoliva, we all got drunk and played touch football. Then the cook slaughtered several pigs, glazed them, stuck apples in their mouths, and served them for dinner with neighbors.
Nor will I forget my trip to Athens where I was installing a show of American Art in the National Gallery of Greece while having a screaming fit with the director in German while the Green Guards, militant Communists, were ululating outside and threatening to storm the Hilton where I was staying. I fell asleep exhausted when I smelled the unmistakable odor of espresso. I looked up. There was Beverly, kneeling on the floor next to an electric plug into which she had stuck a raw wire attached to an espresso pot, now boiling and smoking with coffee. She called her friend Melina Mercouri, then Minister of Culture of Greece, to persuade her to open the show despite the Communists’ objections. The night of the opening, a black limousine drove up and a black silk clad leg shod in stilettos stretched out before exiting imperiously. Beverly stayed with me until I recovered from my show, and we climbed the Acropolis together. When she went home to Italy, Beverly of course went right back to work. Undoubtedly, her many visits to antiquities and archeological sites were inspiring in terms of scale, form, and materials. She was not going to waste her time on the flimsy or the ephemeral. When she built, she built to last. What she created will still be there when we are gone and so much trivia will have evaporated. Ever since the ancient Greeks, there have been Amazons, women warriors who fought with strength and valor with men or against them. For me, my friend Beverly will always be such an Amazon. She was the first to prove a woman could be wife, mother and major artist.