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Miami may be the art capital of Florida, but its less glitzy neighbor of Tampa was once set to be home to the world’s tallest concrete sculpture, designed around 1971 by none other than Pablo Picasso. Envisioned to reach a height of 100 feet, the piece, titled “Bust of a Woman,” was approved to tower over the campus of the University of South Florida (USF), with its single cutout eye gazing blankly at its surroundings. The project — which also involved construction of a new art center — had an estimated cost of $10 million, however, and university officials ended up killing it due to lack of funding. Picasso passed away in 1973, and his angular, hard-edged figure never came to fruition.
The Spanish artist had actually originally designed the concrete sculpture for a museum in Sweden. But when those plans were scrapped, he donated the small maquette he had produced to USF in 1971 after the university expressed interest in realizing the project on Florida soil. The finished work would have been the tallest cement statue in the world at the time, according to local reports. It would have been twice the height of the concrete Picasso that stands in Kristinehamn, Sweden (dedicated in 1965), or twice that of Chicago’s steel Picasso (dedicated in 1967).
While the maquette has spent years on a shelf in the USF Special Collection Library, the story of its creation and unfulfilled fate has long remained murky. Recently, researchers at the school’s Center for Virtualization and Applied Spatial Technologies have rediscovered material in the library’s archives that answer many questions about this failed project. They are now working on a book that compiles all their findings, but they also have a compelling plan to finally fulfill Picasso’s vision, for the digital age: the team intends to recreate the 100-foot-tall “Bust of a Woman” in virtual reality.
Art historian and archaeologist Kamila Oles has been gradually digging into this history since last February, examining old newspaper clippings, photographs, and other documents from the time. Her breakthrough came in November, when she came across an audio reel of an interview between a local journalist and Carl Nesjar, the Norwegian artist who worked as Picasso’s fabricator for nearly two decades. (Nesjar used a sandblasting technique he invented called Betograve to give monumental, textured form to Picasso’s sculptures.) In the April 4, 1974 recording, Nesjar describes his role as a “delegate” for the university, and how he had approached Picasso to explain the school’s proposal to build his sculpture near a new cultural center.
“He liked the whole idea very much,” Nesjar says in the reel. “He liked the architectural part of it, and the layout, and so forth. That was not the only reason, but it was one of the reasons that he said yes. Because it happens, you come to him with a project, and he will say oui ou non … he reacts like a shotgun.”
Picasso was likely so drawn to it as the building was designed by Paul Rudolph, according to Oles’s research, who lived in Sarasota at the time. The architect’s Brutalist vision would have been a fitting complement to “Bust of a Woman”; together the pair would showcase the beauty and possibilities of concrete.
How the idea initially reached USF follows a complicated path. Oles found that Nesjar’s assistant had told someone at a party in New York of Picasso’s interest in creating monumental sculptures. Word spread south to the director of USF’s arts center, who brought the idea of introducing a giant Picasso to campus grounds to an executive committee. University officials “enthusiastically jumped at the idea,” Oles said, especially since they knew that Picasso rarely did commissions, preferring instead to donate works.
Approval still had to be sought from the Florida Board of Regents, which governs the state university system. Its members gave the green light for construction on April 9, 1973 — the day after Picasso’s death. It seemed a tragic destiny that no one would ever get to gaze up at his concrete masterpiece. After then, the school was unable to solicit enough donations to realize the massive endeavor.
Part of why the project failed, Oles said, stemmed from some people’s outright rejection of artwork by a Communist — a reaction to Picasso that was not uncommon at the time as the Cold War dragged on.
“Some people in Tampa just didn’t want to have the Picasso sculpture here,” Oles told Hyperallergic. “Moreover, they didn’t understand Cubism. They didn’t consider it art. Because of this, officials decided to just collect money from private donors, not the government.”
Nearly 50 years on, Oles and her team have a tech-savvy solution to symbolically give Tampa the Picasso it could have had. She has created a 3D model of the small sculpture and is working to generate digital models of the campus that visualize “Bust of the Woman” alongside Rudolph’s building. The completed VR program, which she plans to share online or on an app, will enable users to digitally walk through the campus in the 1970s and finally examine the artwork in its intended context.
While it seems like few Floridians truly appreciated the Picasso in the ’70s, Oles found a clue that suggests how some were a little bothered by the missed opportunity for Tampa. A June 1984 op-ed for the local paper carries the searching headline, “We rejected the legendary Picasso — Were we right?” Its author, a modern painting professor at Eckerd College, didn’t dwell on critiquing the sculpture (“Briefly, I don’t like it.”). But then he launched into a nearly five-page wrangling of Picasso’s life and oeuvre before ending on a gracious thought.
“We must accept Picasso for what he was, the creator of a whole new set of symbols that can be applied to the visual world,” he wrote. “Through them we are forced to feel what only yesterday we thought was forever settled for us, easy and comfortable.”
And he concluded: “I would rank him as the undoubted equal of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Matisse. That is good company in anybody’s language.”