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Return of a Native

Mar 14, 2012 1:43 PM | 0 comments

Before leaving us for Australia about a year and a half ago, one of our former Research Assistants, Tara Cuthbert, livened up the pages of this blog with charming posts about little-known Brooklynites: birthday dancers, parrot fanciers, a legendary cyclist, and a homemade submarine builder, to name just a few. Living in the morgue during her days here at the Brooklyn Collection, Tara was able to discover these and other stories from the Borough's past by combing through the extensive photo collection housed down there in row upon row of filing cabinets. And now, having put a copy online of the finding aid for our Brooklyn Daily Eagle Morgue photos (albeit a partial one, still under construction) we can all take part in this hunting and pecking to search for gems in the files. The other day, looking for interesting photos to include in Joy's post about the Morgue finding aid, I came across a folder labeled Pepper, Beverly. And though she may be little-known now, especially to those whose eyes glaze over when in the presence of monumental abstract sculpture, she was, at one point, a real feather in Brooklyn's cap.

Born Beverly Stoll on December 20, 1924 in Midwood (she lived with her parents at 3619 Bedford Avenue until the age of 24) Pepper attended Madison High School and Pratt Institute where she studied advertising design, photography, and industrial design. Though set up with a plum job after graduating, where she made $16,000 a year as an art director at a major recording company, Pepper decided to pursue her passion for painting, and moved to Paris. Once there she took classes from the likes of Fernand Léger, and made studio visits to Ossip Zadkine and Brancusi.

On October 31st, 1954 the Eagle published an article about Pepper in advance of her "one-man" show at Barone Gallery in Manhattan. The reporter, boasting of the returning native, made sure to mention Pepper's inclusion in a prior show in Rome where her work hung beside those of Goya, Daumier, Degas, Renoir, Picasso, and Matisse -- as if to say, "Look at that, ya bums! Brooklyn can produce a master too!" In addition to becoming a successful painter during her time abroad, Pepper also became a wife and mother, marrying William Pepper, a United Press Correspondent, and giving birth to two children, Jorie and John Randolph. Not the least of her creations, Pepper's daughter Jorie -- with the married name, Graham -- has gone on to write numerous books of poetry and amass a small zoo of accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize and the so-called MacArthur "Genius Grant."

And though Pepper is seen in the Eagle displaying small figurative paintings of everyday life in Italy, she would later become known for her large abstract sculptures and works of land art. In looking at the early work versus the later work, one might be forgiven for thinking they were seeing the creations of two completely different artists. Her early paintings have titles like "Love," while her later works have titles like "Astatic Black Web" and "Harmonious Triad." 

From 1986 to 1987 a vast exhibit of Pepper's work traveled to five cities: Buffalo, San Francisco, Columbus, Miami, and Brooklyn. Below you can see the cover of the catalog which accompanied the show at the Brooklyn Museum. By the time of this large-scale exhibit, Pepper could claim work in the collections of a number of prestigious institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian.

Unfortunately for Beverly Pepper, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was long gone by the time her show went up at the Brooklyn Museum. It's likely the hometown paper, which had so affectionately profiled her in 1954, would have been kinder to the hometown girl than was the New York Times. Art critic John Russel, in a pronouncement so scathing it was later recalled in his 2008 obituary as an instance of the supremely lethal turn his criticism could take when accosted by unoriginal art, wrote: "Meanwhile, to walk through the Brooklyn galleries is like going to Carnegie Hall and hearing great music played out of time and out of tune. In its cumulative effect this may well, in fact, be one of the most debilitating, hyped-up and deeply offensive exhibitions of the postwar era. That is not because the work is 'bad,' but because it does not reach that level of achievement at which the words 'bad' and 'good' have any meaning." Ouch. So maybe it's not so much that you can't go home again, but that you shouldn't go home again -- especially if there's an art critic waiting for you there at the door.