Interview: Beverly Pepper

Between James Barron and Beverly Pepper
September 2017

James Barron: Forms such as these sometimes appear as male and female. Is that an interpretation you are open to?

Beverly Pepper: Yes. But not in this case. These are forces, presences. They have something warrior like about them. I think of them as kind of Homeric. Not gendered anymore than you can tell a god's gender or an angel's...

JB: As always, your forms feel timeless in the way Etruscan objects do, as if they’ve been unearthed and we have no idea what era they are from. How do you feel about that idea?

BP: That feels right. As I say these capture light in a way that reflects it back to the world. They are a bit unique in this respect as they are not polished stainless so the light seems to emanate from them. That's a more Mediterranean feel--Iliad, Odessey, Delphi. These could also be oracles.

JB: Where were these works fabricated? Can you tell us about the process?

BP: They were fabricated by me in my studio in Rome. They started with the upper part which looked too violent to me when I was working on them. Because they really recalled axe heads. However when I stood them up without the base I realized they had so much going on--that the choices were almost too many--that they offered up too many choices to a viewer --so that I made the bases to make them stand alone. When I made the bases and they stood alone I realized they felt religious. Something you could pray to. Which is that strange thing that happens to me so often--I don't think I am religious at all but so much of my work ends up seeming that way. Why are they altars? In the end I don't know... (laughter). When I stood them up they were very silent. They had a kind of space around them I couldn't understand. It surprised me. I could feel it. A mystical space that develops between the viewer and the work...

JB: They are called ‘Altars’. Why? Is there a sacrificial or secular significance you were alluding to?

BP: No, no. It's not sacrificial. Altars are structures which support the sacred but are not themselves sacred. They are in both worlds but they hold something up for us to see. They are fascinating structures. People do things on and around them but the altars just uphold and transform the ordinary into the extraordinary or the sacred. But they are mute. They carry something into presence. In all my years in Italy I have been fascinated by them in every church--by their often brute, mute, blunt presence. They work hard (laughter)...

JB: What were you thinking about when you made these works?

BP: Nothing. I don't think in that sense when I work. I follow the materials and my instinct. Everything I've said here comes unconsciously or after the fact. I think, if at all, and remember, when you ask me a question! When I am working I am in a deep unknowing. It's the best part of making art--that silencing of all thinking except the feeling of form and materials and making contact with some other force.

JB: These works were made in 1985-6. Ronald Reagan was president then. However, your works seem entirely unaffected by the politics of their time. Can you comment on that?

BP: Not really. I follow politics very closely. Even now. Very. But I don't make work from that place. I might be enraged or outraged or terrified--that's in my personal life, in my life as a citizen--and god knows right now is very troubling--but it is not in my studio with me, or not in a conscious way.

JB: As a woman artist in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, you were clearly a maverick. Can you tell us what it was like then?

BP: I don’t think I really thought of myself as a woman artist. I was working in factories from the very first time I made sculpture. I was a woman, but I never thought of myself as a woman-artist. Or a maverick for that matter. I had this great good luck that one of the very first times I functioned as an artist making large-scale work was when I was invited to join the artists in Spoleto. I was asked to do a big work for the Festival and we were all mixed up together in the factories and foundries and there was nothing there that made me think of myself as a woman artist. There were other women there. It somehow wasn’t gendered though. And it’s been that way. Maybe I’m wrong. But I can’t tell you what aspect of my work is gendered.

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