Portrait of a Life: Decades of Beverly Pepper’s personal sketches come to Meijer Gardens

When Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park received a gift from contemporary sculptor Beverly Pepper — consisting of nearly 900 works — Chief Curator and Vice President Joseph Becherer immediately started thinking about a future exhibition. 

“Things have been flowing all the way until relatively recently because we really wanted to present highlights,” Becherer said. “It’s more than 65 years of work.”

The exhibition, Drawn Into Form: Sixty Years of Drawings and Prints by Beverly Pepper, is running from Feb. 2 through April and is comprised of 10 sections and more than 70 pieces. Eight sections are a chronological journey throughout her career, starting in the 1940s when she left America for Europe up to today. The last part of the exhibition will have a video of the 95-year-old in her Italian studio, where she still paints every day.

The other sections of the exhibit are focused more on specific themes. One will be a sampling of her sketchbooks and Becherer said there are at least a dozen. The other will take a look at her interest in landscapes.

Becherer said this exhibition is one that guests will enjoy even if they don’t know much about art. They just have to be interested in being told a good story.

When putting it all together, Becherer wanted to make sure this exhibition did just that.

“I wanted to tell the story of how her art changed, but I also wanted to help underscore the fact that as a woman in the 20th century, she was really a pioneer,” he said.

Pepper has been a driving force in the art world for decades, with her career taking off in the wake of Abstract Expressionism during the 1960s, when she received critical acclaim from all around the world. Her work includes sculptures created in bronze, steel, cast iron and stone, along with site-specific installations, drawings and prints in galleries and museums. Her steel sculpture, Galileo’s Wedge, is currently in the Meijer Gardens.

“I wanted to show the depth of having a lot of works by one artist,” Becherer said of the huge number of pieces. “It’s great to have one piece or two pieces by an artist, but when you have a whole body of work, that’s really, really a significant thing.”

The exhibition is mainly drawings and prints, including many sketches of her major sculptural endeavors.

Meijer Gardens landing this gift wasn’t pure luck — Becherer said the organization has had a long relationship with Pepper that started in the early 2000s. A few years ago, he even spent some time interviewing her about her life and building up transcripts.

I think that we all like to have long-standing relationships, and we like to have commitments from other individuals,” Becherer said. “Beverly got a commitment from Meijer Gardens and she also got a commitment from me as an academic, as a scholar, as a curator.”

After all this, Pepper trusted him to tell her story. Becherer said she liked the idea of the narrative. Unfortunately, she won’t be making the trip to Grand Rapids — she is 95 and lives halfway across the world — but she will definitely be there in spirit.

“I wouldn’t say (the sketchbooks) are necessarily like reading a diary, but they are different than seeing something that’s framed and on the wall,” Becherer said. “You really feel the artist and their presence.”

Drawings and Prints by Beverly Pepper
Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park
1000 E. Beltline Ave. NE, Grand Rapids
Feb. 2-April 29