That time USF almost built the world's largest concrete sculpture with Pablo Picasso

Published March 6
Updated March 6

For decades, the odd, little sculpture with the sort-of inquisitive looking eyeball carved out over what could be nostrils was just sitting on a shelf at the University of South Florida.

Art historian and archaeologist Kamila Oles spotted it while working on another project in the USF library with Director of Special Collections Matt Knight. What is that, she asked.

That was something he’d been wondering for years, he told her.

So Oles started digging.

"We uncovered, like, a lost Picasso masterpiece," she said this week.

Sort of. More accurate would be to call it a Pablo Picasso masterpiece that never was, and a Tampa landmark — maybe even a national landmark in Tampa — that never arrived.

Not the little sculpture, though. That wasn’t a Picasso original. It was a model made to represent possibly the most ambitious public art project ever conceived in Tampa Bay.

When Oles looked at it she knew immediately it had something to do with the master, but wasn’t sure what until she discovered an outdated audio reel in the university archives labeled "Picasso USF."

The early 1970s audio contained the voice of famed Picasso collaborator and sculptor Carl Nesjar laying out plans in Tampa with USF leaders for the world’s tallest concrete sculpture, a Picasso work titled "Bust of a Woman" that would tower 100 feet above the campus’ then-western edge.

Later she discovered Picasso’s approval documents, a concept photograph and sketches for the piece.

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A photomontage of "The Bust of a Woman" at the USF campus made by Carl Nesjar in 1971. [USF Special Collections University of South Florida Libraries.]

 

Near the end of his life Picasso worked with Nesjar, his chosen fabricator, to create a series of large, public sculptures of his works. More than a dozen were built around the globe, including the 36-foot "Bust of Sylvette" at New York University and others in Chicago and at Princeton University. USF’s would have been the largest.

"Having another monumental outdoor sculpture by Picasso would be a huge deal now, and the kind of thing people would make a pilgrimage to see," said Liz Dimmitt, an art industry consultant who has worked on large, public art projects in Tampa. "We have wonderful public art here, but Picasso would be the biggest, blue chip name in this area. Everyone knows that name even if you’re not interested in art."

Picasso donated the design for "Bust of a Woman," and the model, to USF in 1971. It was one of the last projects he ever worked on.

The State Board of Regents unanimously approved the sculpture on April 9, 1973, the day after Picasso died, and expected construction to begin in 1974. Wind tunnel tests to make sure the giant sculpture wouldn’t topple in a hurricane were completed.

Adding to the historical significance, Oles discovered Picasso and Nesjar’s plans for an art center next to the statue designed by world-famous architect Paul Rudolph. It would have given the project the "architectural drama" Picasso desired for his statues, Oles said.

But how did a small university in relatively young Tampa become home for a project by a renowned architect and the world’s most famous artist, who never once visited the United States let alone Florida?

"This is the question I’ve been trying to answer for the past year," Oles said.

Here’s what she found out through much research.

Picasso originally wanted to build "Bust of a Woman" in Sweden, but when that project was scrapped, he still really wanted the monumental sculpture realized somewhere.

So Nesjar spread the word, which reached his friend Lynn Etseen, who around 1970 took it to a fancy society party in New York and told a guest. That guest called his friend Ed Bowen, a gallery owner in Clearwater and frequent visitor to USF Graphicstudio, another improbable high-art success story at the fledgling school, which helped give Tampa some street cred in the artistic community.

Bowen floated the idea to USF officials about the possibility of receiving a giant Picasso sculpture, and they jumped at it. Word traveled back to Picasso, who according to a St. Petersburg Times article, liked USF’s commitment to making the statue a "focal point for an expanding cultural and fine arts program." It would "put Tampa on the cultural map," said another story from 1974.

That proposed art center designed in the brutalist style by part-time Sarasota resident Rudolph, who died in 1997, wasn’t as publicized at the time, possibly because his work became more famous in retrospect. Oles said the combination of Picasso with Rudolph, "who is up there with Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright," would have been one of a kind in the world.

"This deal was super crazy at the time, that such a young university that didn’t have the reputation of NYU or places like that ... it was just crazy," Oles said.

It was also doomed from the start.

The funds for building the statue were never going to come from the university or taxpayers, but from private donations raised by a committee. The statue, at a cost $500,000, would be a gift from the community.

They raised about $125,000 and stalled. Years passed. By 1978 the Times reported the project dead, perhaps in part because the committee spurned prospective donors in Pinellas County and focused on Tampa.

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What the art center and statue would have looked like on today's campus. [Kamila Oles, CVAST]

 

Oles thinks Tampa society just wasn’t ready to fund such an expensive art project in the ’70s, and that the Cold War didn’t help.

"Picasso really supported Communists, he even received a Lenin Peace Prize, so he was too controversial," she said. "And for us now, cubism is art, but in the ’70s some people thought this statue was a Halloween costume, an ugly woman."

The art center would have brought the cost to $10 million, which would be more than $50 million in today’s dollars at a time when the oil crisis had shaken the economy.

There have been efforts to revive the statue, in the ’80s and ’90s, when a USF president wanted it to draw visitors from around the world, and in recent years a public relations executive pitched it as a way to "make Tampa cool."

Still, it’s "incredibly sad it did not happen," Oles said, which brings us to her next project: realizing the statue and art center virtually so people can experience it in Picasso’s intended context.

Using the original plans as well as historic maps of the campus, Google Maps, and 3D scanning technology, Oles has been working to create a virtual reality rendering of the statue and art center, which will eventually be available for free online. She’s also working on a book, and seeking donations for a film documentary about the project’s historical significance.  More information is on her website.

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Kamila Oles uses a Faro Edge Arm Scanner to scan a model of "Bust of a Woman." [Kamila Oles, CVAST]

 

Even after answering so many questions, Oles research has raised a new, completely hypothetical one: Does USF still have the right to construct the massive statue if it ever wanted to? Nesjar, who was the only one with Picasso’s permission to build the sculpture, died in 2015, and Picasso’s heirs were not supportive in the past.

The university’s attorneys have looked into those copyright questions. Oles said they’re complicated, and could take a long time to answer.

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