I was relieved to discover that another art critic had described 91-year-old sculptor Beverly Pepper as "the brilliant artist you've never heard of". Before our interview, I, too, was unfamiliar with her name, despite the fact that her monumental steel sculptures can be found all over the world, including two in Israel. However, there are none in the UK, and although she has been represented by Marlborough Fine Art for nearly 50 years, she is now exhibiting in the UK for the first time.
"I ask myself to this day why I have never before shown in England," Pepper says. "It was stupid because London has always been a great place to make art. Robert Hughes, the eminent writer, said I was not a careerist. And maybe that is why you have not heard of me."
A small, sprightly woman, dressed completely in black, Pepper walks with a stick. But she is still full of energy and committed to making sculpture. Neither a serious accident two years ago, nor the death in April of her husband, the author and journalist Curtis Bill Pepper, after 68 years of marriage has dampened her resolution. "I'm almost 92 and I don't have the same physical energy," she says. "However, I have found a way to outwit my disability. I draw and work in Styrofoam, then my assistants translate my ideas."
Pepper was born Beverly Stoll in 1922 in New York. "I came from a strange Jewish family," she says. "My mother's parents were very religious. My father's parents were against religion and were socialists. We had the most wonderful Passovers. My mother's family had the first night, where we had a very serious service but then enjoyed hiding the matzah and playing lots of games. The next day, my father's mother would have us over for candies, cakes and ice cream."
Her mother and paternal grandmother were both strong characters, which influenced Pepper in forging her own career. "And I was the first good cook in my family. My mother was a terrible cook. So bad you can't imagine. I never knew liver should not taste like rubber."
Pepper cannot recall a time when she was not drawing, a passion her parents did not understand. "However, my mother gave me the use of our basement so I could paint anything I wanted on the walls. My first great paintings were of Popeye and Olive Oyl."
She studied advertising but also attended nocturnal art classes at Brooklyn College. She then got a well-paid job as an art director for an advertising agency, saving up to travel to Europe in 1949. Studying art in Paris, she moved to Rome after meeting and marrying her husband, who was appointed Mediterranean bureau chief for Newsweek. "We knew Marcello [Mastroianni] and Fellini, Sophia Loren and Antonioni. But Rome was a small town. People knew who you were because there weren't that many people - and, of course, Bill wrote a lot about them. I had a split life. When everyone talked about the parties we gave, it was not Beverly and Bill but Mr and Mrs Newsweek." In the 1970s, the Peppers moved to Umbria, where she still lives.
She worked as a painter until a trip to the Far East resulted in an "epiphany" which made her take up sculpture. "I went with my daughter [the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Jorie Graham]. She was just 10. I had this brilliant child, more curious than I was. That was what made me focus." It was the statues at Angkor Wat in Cambodia that particularly inspired her. "When I came back to Italy, I just wanted to sculpt and never stop.
"I began with clay, because with clay you don't have to have any technique or talent. You just do it with your hands. The work was very naïve. Then there was some wood in the backyard which was probably destined for the fireplace. It never occurred to me that I didn't know how to carve. I just bought electric tools from a carpenter. To this day, I do not know how to carve with sculptors' tools." And when asked if she would like to take part in an exhibition of sculptors working in steel, she lied and said she could weld. And thus she began to work in the material for which she is best known.
Many of her sculptures have been monumental in size, though those on show are mostly smaller pieces that would sit happily in a home. They are all named after the wives of the Caesars and I remark on how very curvaceous but strong they are. "I don't think feminine has to be soft," she replies.