October 17, 1967 – “Sylvette” gets the go-ahead
On October 17, 1967, Pablo Picasso wrote in a letter that he agreed to allow his colleague, Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar, to reproduce a large-scale sculpture of “Bust of Sylvette” for the University Village/Silver Towers complex, which GVSHP later proposed and successfully fought to have landmarked. The sculpture is one of only two public outdoor Picasso sculptures in the entire Western Hemisphere, and is included in the landmark designation.
It was architect I.M. Pei, designer of the University Village, who originally wanted a large-scale Picasso sculpture for an earlier project, Kips Bay Plaza. That plan was opposed by that project’s developer, William Zeckendorf, and Pei instead turned his attention to University Village. He secured funding from Museum of Modern Art patrons Allan D. and Kate S. Emil, and in November of 1967 the commission was announced. Nesjar and his team worked on the 36-foot-tall sculpture from January to June of 1968, and it was formally dedicated on December 9, 1968.
Nesjar first met Pei in Paris in 1958, shortly after he had introduced Picasso to the process of “Betrograve” or nature concrete. Picasso was intrigued by this process and told Nesjar that he wanted to “do something with it.” Picasso had already done a series of smaller sculptures of Sylvette David, made of folded sheet metal. He and Nesjar selected one of them to be enlarged, and chose a location in the University Village plan near to the corner of Houston and Mercer Streets. The final location was changed, however, to a more central one on the Bleecker Street side. The shape of the sculpture mimics the “pinwheel” layout of the three Silver Towers buildings.
On November 18, 2008, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated all of University Village, including the Sylvette sculpture and all its landscaping, a New York City landmark. You can read the designation report here, and the “Bust of Sylvette” sculpture is mentioned here.
It should be noted that in 2010, NYU attempted to get permission to build a fourth, taller tower within the landmarked complex, which would have blocked the view of the Sylvette sculpture from the north along Bleecker Street. GVSHP, I.M. Pei, Sylvette David (the model for the original sculpture) and many others successfully opposed that outrageous plan, and NYU withdrew it.