As we cross Houston Street, the neighborhood changes from the frenetic pace of Soho—with its ornamental cast iron buildings—to the academic campus of New York University and these three giant, undecorative concrete structures, called the Silver Towers. The towers, their landscaping, and the Picasso sculpture they enclose are known as University Village and were designed and commissioned in the 1960s by I. M. Pei, who later went on to become most famous for the glass pyramid of the Louvre in Paris.
I.M. Pei created the Silver Towers in a style that became knows as brutalism, which some find harsh and others appreciate for its functionality. Brutalist buildings tend to use exposed concrete and modular elements, and the functions of the buildings are often expressed on the exterior rather than hidden behind a facade. They were popular in the 1950s through the 1970s for government and institutional buildings because they tend to communicate strength and functionality. The Silver Towers were originally planned as student housing, but as part of the purchase deal NYU was required to designate one of the buildings for subsidized housing.
Pei himself requested the Picasso sculpture in the middle, called Bust of Sylvette. After the developer of another project he was working on vetoed having a sculpture there, Pei decided to put it here instead—a fitting choice since the piece uses the same concrete materials as the buildings but in a much more fluid, artistic way. Coincidentally, the project that rejected the sculpture was in the Kips Bay area of Manhattan, where Peter Cooper’s glue and cement factory once stood.
Sylvette was one of Picasso’s many muses throughout his career. She was 19 years old when they met, with a tall, bouncing blonde ponytail that caught Picasso’s attention. Their relationship of artist and muse was only platonic, which was unusual for Picasso, and it lasted only a few months. However, it was a prolific time in Picasso’s career, and he produced more than 60 Sylvette-based pieces of various media in the short time. The pieces were exhibited in Paris in the summer of 1954 to rave reviews, inspiring Life magazine to call the era Picasso’s “Ponytail Period.”
Norwegian sculptor Carl Nesjär worked with Picasso to create the Bust of Sylvette, which is based on one of Picasso’s much smaller, folded sheet metal sculptures. Picasso assisted Nesjär with the sculpture, but he never visited the space where it sits today. Here we call it a Picasso because that is what New York University etched into the plaque, but Sylvette inspired it, I. M. Pei decided to install it, and Nesjär made it—which raises questions about where inspiration starts, what defines an “original,” and the politics of who deserves credit.
We at ArtWalk have varying opinions about this piece: some feel it is a true Picasso, while others consider it a piece inspired by Picasso but ultimately call it a Nesjär.
|1949||Housing act signed|
|1967||Constructed by Carl Nësjar, Silver Towers open|
|2008||Designated a National Historic Landmark|
|link||SoHo Memory Project: Two Towers|
|link||Artlyst – Sylvette|
|link||The Dezeen Guide to Brutalist Architecture|
|internal||Pablo Picasso - Wiki|
|internal||University Village, NYU|
|internal||Learn About the Artist: Sylvette David|
|internal||Picasso.org – Sylvette|
|internal||University Village, New York|
|internal||Washington Square Village|
using the same materials with so different effects, the fuzzy border between original, inspiration, and copy
Developer have significant impact on the city, next up we’ll look at another developer who had a very different point if view.
Robert Moses & Jane Jacobs
Cast Iron Facade Mural