Beverly Pepper’s catalogue Monumenta opens with an introduction by art historian and curator Robert Hobbs, “Beverly Pepper: Time as Space,” in which he situates Pepper’s work within the critical context provided by Henri Bergson, André Malraux, and Walter Benjamin. The continuum of time and space and their indivisibility are apparent in Pepper’s works, which are often monumental—if not in size, in presence—and integrated with their surroundings, the materials of the sculptures interacting and changing with their environment over time.
Hobbs’s idea of time as space as it relates to Pepper’s work is most accurately described by Bergson’s theory of duration, his “view of a single moment as a multiplicity in which one can intuitively grasp truth happening.” Rather than crystallizing a moment in time, Pepper’s sculptures “catalyze a range of disjunctive temporalities” and present the viewer with the tension of polarities—i.e., past and present, nature and culture—opening them to the fluidity of experience and thus a range of emotional response.
Pepper’s work—integrated with nature, space, and time—seems universally affective, but most of Hobbs’s densely argued essay obscures the importance of its emotional and cultural impact in his endeavor to situate her work within an extensive art-historical and critical framework. We are several pages in before Hobbs provides a more accessible view into her work.
Pepper’s interest in sculpture was largely catalyzed by a trip to Angkor in the 1960s (prior to her interest in sculpture, she had been a social-realist painter). The banyan trees, their relentless expansion and stranglehold on the surrounding man-made constructions, emphasized the collision of nature and culture—the unbridled growth of nature against civilization, a tension which Pepper began to explore through sculpture. Her first show, at the Galleria Pogliani in Rome (1961) consisted of cut-up trees. She continued to explore the clash of nature and culture by using materials affected by time and environment—e.g., iron, open to atmospheric conditions, becomes patinated with rust; the reflective quality of polished steel negates its heaviness, the reflected images seeming to emanate from within.
Pepper was concerned with the relationship of site to sculpture, that they form an ongoing dialectic—that they “supplement and enliven each other,” the sculpture inseparable from its site as they change together over time. She used the term “earthbound” to describe such works, “situated so the earth appears as if it has given birth to them or as if they are rising up from it.” In much the same way as the buildings of Angkor were enveloped by the surrounding banyan trees, her works acknowledge the futility of imposing on the natural world, instead attempting to become seamlessly integrated, to grow and change with it. Her sculptures also present the dialectic of past and present, their physical appearance bearing the marks of time. Constantly in flux, transforming, her sculptures are thus understood cyclically, through their polarities, metamorphoses, and endless possibility rather than any fixed quality. She acknowledges that there is “no fixed equilibrium between man and his environment”—it’s the constant struggle to “maintain a balance between inner and outer reality,” man’s desire to define both himself and his environment as they change over time, that she seeks to redress in her sculptures.
In her public art and Land Art, Pepper carried over the social commitment first seen in her social-realist painting, setting up monumental works for the public, free from the exclusivity or limitations of works commissioned by wealthy patrons or institutions. Pepper noted that “cultural activity is no longer so restricted to the few.” Thus it is something of a contradiction that her accessible work is discussed in the book’s only essay in academic terminology only available to the few.
By Glenn Harper