Beverly Pepper, Harmonious Triad

Beverly Pepper, Harmonious Triad, 1982-1983. Cast ductile iron, 96 × 26 × 24 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Charles Cowles, 1983 (1983.521a-d). Photo by Dror Balinger.

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Valerie Fletcher: Beverly Pepper was born in Brooklyn, New York, but after World War II she took herself off to Paris to study art with two masters of Cubism, Fernand Léger and André Lhote and the lesser-known sculptor named Ossip Zadkine. In 1951 she moved permanently to Italy, just outside Rome, partly because she could setup a studio and hire skilled assistance there at the time when the American dollar was worth a lot abroad.

She started out in sculpture in wood, but in 1962 there was a pivotal event in her life. She was invited along with nine other sculptors to make works in connection with the art and music festival in Spoleto, Italy. Among the sculptors invited were two masters of constructed metal sculptures, Alexander Calder and David Smith. Beverly Pepper did not yet work in steel, did not even know how to weld. So she apprenticed herself to an ironmonger, learned how to weld, and when she came to the festival to work, she created her first major steel sculpture and her first sculpture there was 18 feet tall. From that time on, she worked only in metal constructions. She went on to make sculptures that were in the minimalist mode, in which a simple basic component like a square was repeated in a sequence or progression. In this sense she is sometimes compared to Tony Smith.

However, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, she had moved away from that idea of squares and was working in columnar forms; that is upright, slender, abstract forms and that is what this sculpture, Harmonious Triad, consists of. Three very slender, vertical elements, slightly different heights, proportionately placed on this very low pedestal. It is difficult to describe or interpret this work because when you confront it you immediately become conscious of how human sized these columns are at least two of them in height, but in terms of width, not even the most slender among us comes close to these. And so you’re forced to see them as abstractions, but abstractions that confront you as a standing element. Their relationship to each other is important. The title Harmonious Triad does not have any significant symbolic association. Rather Pepper was a believer that abstract language, abstract constructions help to convey a state of mind. In this case peace, calm, and stasis.

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Beverly Pepper, Harmonious Triad, 1982-1983.

American, born 1924

After World War II, Beverly Pepper studied art in Paris at the studios of cubist painters Fernand Léger (1881–1955) and André Lhote (1885–1962) and sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1890–1967). During this time, she developed geometric and biomorphic abstract styles derived from European modernists. Turning from painting to sculpture in 1960, Pepper first carved in wood, a plentiful and inexpensive material; however, instead of using hand chisels, she preferred power tools.

In 1962, along with ten other sculptors, she was invited to Spoleto, Italy, to use local steel factories as studios. The other artists included well-established masters of abstract metal constructions such as Alexander Calder (1898–1976) and David Smith (1906–1965). Unfamiliar with welding, Pepper apprenticed with an ironmonger and soon made her first steel sculpture, nearly eighteen feet tall. After her time in Spoleto, she sculpted only in metal and on a monumental scale, mostly for installation outdoors in urban spaces.

It was virtually unprecedented for women to use the physically arduous, industrial methods of cutting and welding heavy sheets of steel in the 1960s. Unlike many sculptors of her generation, Pepper established her own well-equipped studio because she preferred to fabricate the sculptures herself rather than delegate the task to others.

In the 1980s, Pepper moved from the geometric constructions with systematic repetition advocated by minimalist sculptors toward autonomous forms grouped together. Harmonious Triad consists of three tall and very slender columns on a low square pedestal. These verticals may suggest standing figures, but Pepper preferred them to be interpreted as pure abstraction. Here, there is only a delicate interplay of shapes and an exquisite subtlety of form and placement. 

Beverly Pepper, Harmonious Triad, 1982-1983. Photo by Dror Balinger.

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