In 1962, when Beverly Pepper was invited to take part in an artist residency at a metalworking factory in the Italian town of Piombino, they asked if she could weld. “Of course,” she lied, quickly seeking out a local handyman to teach her the basics. That crash-course led to a six-decade career in which metal became the American artist’s primary material.
As well as iron and bronze, Pepper, who has died aged 97, was the first to use Corten steel (which weathers attractively outdoors) in art, before more famous male peers such as Donald Judd and Richard Serra. She employed these industrial materials on a range of scales, from vast land art projects to delicate, plinth-based sculpture. Curvae, a 2012 series of steel works, each over a metre in height, is typical in how the red-brown weathered surface of the material blends with the landscape. The connection to nature is reinforced as each piece of metal curls off the ground like a dropped leaf.
In the 1970s she created a series of razor-sharp geometric “tabletop” sculptures in polished steel, which, with titles including Pergamon and Paraclete, introduced a spiritual dimension to the work and reflected an enduring interest in ancient civilisations. “My influences are historical: Trajan’s column, Cleopatra’s obelisk, the Roman forum, amphitheatres in Sicily, Greece and Turkey,” Pepper said in 2013. “I focus on the present as projected from the past.”
In 1988 she undertook the design of the Parc de l’Estació del Nord in Barcelona, producing an undulating terrain using earth and walls of broken blue tiles that glint in the sun. This landscape, reminiscent of ancient burial grounds, was dotted with a series of human-sized steel columns. Pepper’s Manhattan Sentinels, three cast-iron pillars installed in Federal Plaza, New York city, in 1993, are taller. With their bulky, more rectangular form, they bring an industrial feel to the square.
She was born in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Irwin Stoll and Beatrice Hornstein. Her father, who worked in the fur trade, she described as “brutal” and “prejudiced”. He once beat her after she stole a dollar to buy coloured pencils, she said. Beatrice was a civil rights activist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and encouraged her daughter to paint.
After leaving James Madison high school, Beverly attended the Pratt Institute, a New York art college at which she had previously attended weekend courses. To placate her mother, who worried she would become a “starving artist”, she studied advertising design. In the evenings she took philosophy courses at Brooklyn College. “Philosophers have been important in finding my way,” she said in 2009. “Especially Henri Bergson and his thoughts on time, memory, intuition.”
While at college she helped on redesigns for the magazines Redbook and Cosmopolitan and, on graduating in 1939, took design jobs at Decca Records and then the Coty cosmetics company. She continued to paint, joining the Art Students League, before, on a whim, applying to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, and moving to France in 1949. Her teachers included the cubist painters André Lhote and Fernand Léger.
That year she started a relationship with Horace Titus, son of Helena Rubinstein, founder of the cosmetics empire. On the way to meet him in Venice, she stopped off in Rome and headed to the bar of the Hotel d’Inghilterra, an artists’ hangout. There she was introduced to Bill Pepper, a journalist (later to become Newsweek’s Rome bureau chief), and they married three months later.
The couple moved in Rome’s rarefied society: the directors Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini were friends; the war reporter Martha Gellhorn would come for lunch. Pepper’s first exhibition came in 1952 at Galleria dello Zodiaco, Rome, and in the same year she published a cookbook with Doubleday to fund her art.
Living in Europe had a detrimental effect on the work, she thought: “I did the worst paintings you’ve ever seen because it was so beautiful that it was impossible to paint anything.” Nonetheless five further exhibitions followed during that decade, in Rome and New York, mostly in the vein of socialist realism.
On a seven-month trip through Asia in 1960, Pepper visited the Cambodian temple complex of Angkor Wat. She was enthralled by the way the banyan trees intertwined with the Hindu statutory. “I walked into Angkor Wat a painter and I left a sculptor,’’ she said in 1987.
She started to experiment with wood carving, exhibiting a series of sculptures at Galleria Pogliana, Rome, in 1961. The following year she was invited to the residency at the metalworks in Piombino and to take part in the Sculture nella Città (Sculptures in the City) exhibition in Spoleto alongside Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and Lucio Fontana. Her career gained traction on both sides of the Atlantic and, in 1964, on a residency at the US Steel factory in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, she made her first works with Corten.
Institutional shows followed at Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, both in 1969. In 1974 she created her first site-specific commission, a vast sculptural amphitheatre, on the lawn outside an AT&T office in New Jersey.
In 1987 an exhibition of more than 60 works at the Brooklyn Museum was the subject of a devastating review by John Russell in the New York Times. The article described the show as “dead”, “inert” and without “vestige of original talent”. Russell’s attack sent Pepper to bed for three weeks and stunted her career until the turn of the century. While exhibitions at commercial galleries and public commissions continued, including a 2014 show at the Marlborough Gallery in London, institutional recognition dried up until a recent, partial, rehabilitation.
In 2011 she had a show of small works at the Georgia Museum of Art, and in 2012 she had a solo show at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Michigan.
At the Venice Biennale last year she exhibited the eight-metre-high Todi Columns, originally made for the Umbrian city where she and Bill had settled in the early 1970s. In September, a park opened in Todi designed around sculptures donated to the city by Pepper.
Bill died in 2014. Pepper is survived by their daughter, Jorie, and son, John.
• Beverly Pepper, artist, born 20 December 1922; died 5 February 2020