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Trapezium Altar

/ Spotlight on the Collection

c Beverly Pepper courtesy Marlborough Gallery New York

By Shannon Bewley, Provenance Research Fellow

Beverly Pepper’s Trapezium Altar (1985-1986) stands in the Upper Plaza of the Museum like a shrine to an ancient god—or perhaps like a giant tuning fork, or even a rusty tool. Her works dance the line between complete abstraction and familiar representation. The timeless deep purples and browns of the sculpture are a major aesthetic component that communicate echoes of the distant past and glimpses of the far future. The surface of Trapezium Altar has naturally grown redder towards the base of the work since its arrival at the Museum in 1991. These hues originate from the chemical composition of the metal composing the work.

The sculpture is made from Cor-Ten, also known as “weathering steel.” The surface of this steel alloy oxidizes into a protective, durable rust coating that is resilient in wet conditions. Before adoption by Pepper, Cor-Ten was most commonly used in railroad equipment. She is now recognized as the first artist to utilize Cor-Ten, a medium that revolutionized the look and longevity of public sculpture and architecture. Many artists such as Donald Judd and Richard Serra quickly followed suit after Pepper. Another work of Cor-Ten, Tuba (1981-1982) by Anthony Caro, can also be seen in the Museum’s Upper Plaza. 

While creating sculptures at a U.S. Steel Factory in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, in 1964, the company offered pieces of Cor-Ten to Pepper for experimentation. Twenty years prior, the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, refused to allow Pepper to study industrial design on the grounds that she as a woman could not operate the heavy machinery required for the courses. She briefly turned to painting before persisting in her pursuit of access to raw materials and studio space to create large sculptures. Although the sleek geometricism of her sculptures seem removed from the passage of time, Pepper’s use of Cor-Ten and continued perseverance in the field of large-scale public sculpture firmly plants her within the record of art history as a pioneering sculptor.