Beverly Pepper is an unabashed modernist – hardly surprising, given she was born in 1922 and studied in Paris under the likes of Fernand Léger. What’s more surprising, perhaps, is that, in a career spanning more than 60 years and numerous commissions for public sculptures across the world, this is her first solo exhibition in the UK. Certainly, she’s better known in her native New York and also in Italy, where she’s resided since the 1950s, and where she pioneered the use of Corten steel in art – an alloy that weathers to a beautiful, durable rust-red, and which was later taken up by fellow monumentalists like Richard Serra.
Pepper’s own monumental structures, then, made in metal or stone, are grand statements of belief in the power of abstraction and geometric form – yet none of these large-scale works are actually on display here. Instead, the show consists of 12 small-scale, curved sculptures (Pepper calls the series Curvae, all 2014, though they are additionally individually titled) – sheets of Corten that have been bowed and welded into distended C-shapes, U-shapes and tubular ellipses – situated on white plinths. And while this initially seems slightly disappointing, almost like viewing a show of maquettes or prototypes, the reduced scale and greater number of works soon creates an intensifying, exhilarating effect. In fact, by the end of the exhibition, it’s hard not to conclude that it’s these ostensibly humbler sculptures that actually best convey the essence of Pepper’s practice, conjuring up forms that seem at once incredibly simple yet also irreducibly complex.
The simplicity comes from the elemental nature of the works: their supple, primeval curves, the almost mathematical grace of their torques and parabolas. It’s as if a series of equations has been drawn up – with the nestled horseshoe shapes of Pompea, say, or the segmented ovoid of Drusilla, being presented to the viewer as the material results. And indeed, the sculptures seem constantly to allude to their own materiality, to reiterate their formalist creed: the notion that their physical forms, right there before you, contain the entirety of their meaning, without any recourse to pesky postmodern ideas of language or culture.
In other words, it’s the modernist notion of the autonomy of the artwork – but, crucially, given greater emphasis here because of the works’ smaller size. Only this way, runs the implicit promise, can the sculptures be properly delineated and scrutinised, can they be truly reckoned with – without any of the distracting gravitas, the theatrics, of works made on a more colossal scale.
And yet, for all that, there’s frequently something unsettled, something mutable about Pepper’s small pieces. Objects appear strikingly different from different angles – the furling, dive-bombing swoosh of Livia, for example, revealing itself, when reversed, as perched in an oddly halting, precarious position; or the chunky C-shape of Octavia, whose edges, all extending along marginally differing trajectories, create a drunkenly fluctuating, out-of-sync feel.
It’s a dynamic that defines the exhibition – with the works seemingly inviting close scrutiny, only to rebuff attempts to fully apprehend them. And the concept extends to what’s a novel development for Pepper, featured in about half of the sculptures: a patch of metal that’s been deliberately melted and pitted. It’s a subtle, yet telling paradox – an area that functions as a kind of interference pattern, threatening to disrupt the works’ pristine curvatures, yet simultaneously as a focal point, the only aspect of each sculpture it’s possible to describe in any definitive detail.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue