Ascensione, 2008. Steel, 400 x 407 x 190 cm.

Beverly Pepper: Primal Potential

Majestic, monumental, yet scarcely 10 inches high, Beverly Pepper’s “Explorations in Stone” may be uncharacteristically small works, but they have her signature robust stature, conveying a primitive energy and raw power. Photographed without scale markers, these marble, granite, alabaster, and onyx sculptures could be six or 60 feet high—and as Pepper is famous for her large-scale, site-specific public artworks in the U.S., Europe, and Asia (sometimes measuring as much as 70 yards across), it’s quite an adjustment for the viewer. Massive or miniature, stone, bronze, steel, or aluminum, heavily patinated or shiny smooth, Pepper’s sentinels and markers evoke, above all, past ages, paying homage, she says, “to a world we never knew.”

She recently installed her latest public sculpture, Ascensione, in Assisi’s Piazza di San Pietro. Rising over 22 feet in a single arc, it soars above a beautiful 12th-century Benedictine church high on a hill, an audacious modern presence poised in the peaceful Umbrian landscape. Pepper has invoked Italo Calvino in connection with her work. She particularly responds to Invisible Cities, which emphasizes how imagination plays with memory, how dreams take us to foreign yet seemingly familiar places, how time collapses our perceptions with uncanny precision. So too, Pepper’s work is more about the mystery and potential of basic primal emotion, be it votive, ritual, totemic, ceremonial, or spiritual, than about geometry per se. As she puts it, “The abstract language of form that I have chosen has become a way to explore an interior life of feeling. I wish to make an object that has a powerful presence but is at the same time inwardly turned, seeming capable of intense self-absorption. My pieces are not about history…they are commemorations to the determining presence of the past in our own lives.”

This sense of mystery, coupled with a commanding presence, imbues Pepper’s elemental forms with an effortless nobility quite at odds with their simple origins. Most of her pieces are based on roughly geometric triangles, wedges, and repeated rectangles, while slits, straight edges, simple curves, and long points contribute to her sculptural vocabulary, which follows in the tradition of Hepworth and Moore. Pepper’s expressive use of texture, though, with surface scores, scratches, cuts, slices, and grooves—is all her own.