Two of the best known are the monumental 1958 Head of a Woman (Tête de femme), which has been on display in the sculpture garden since the Nasher opened 12 years ago, and the closely related painted metal work Head of a Woman (Tête de femme), also called Head of Jacqueline, of the preceding year. The smaller Head of a Woman is one of a group of folded sheet-metal sculptures Picasso made in the 1950s and 1960s. In the sheet-metal sculptures, Picasso used intersecting, planar surfaces to generate works that confounded expectations of the continuous three-dimensional contours typical of much modern sculpture. Works such as Head of a Woman (Tête de femme) present not so much multiple views of the same subject as specific, sharply delineated glimpses of individual, recognizable forms, such as a nose seen in profile or from the front. In the sheet-metal sculptures, we become aware of how little it takes to be able to recognize a line and a dot, for example, as an eye—and how quickly a glance at another surface of the same work can reconfigure that initial impression.
Early in 1957, the year Picasso made Head of a Woman (Tête de femme), he met a Norwegian artist named Carl Nesjar, who visited him in the south of France primarily to ask if he would make a lithograph for the newly founded Aktuell Kunst Society of Oslo, an organization started by the Workers’ Party of Norway to offer prints by subscription at reasonable prices. Appreciating the democratic impulse behind the concept, Picasso readily agreed. But the conversation took an unexpected turn as the acquaintance who introduced them encouraged Nesjar to show Picasso photographs of works done in Betograve, a new artistic process developed by the Norwegian architect Erling Viksjö. In Betograve, forms packed tightly with gravel aggregate are filled with concrete; upon drying, the concrete surface can be sandblasted to reveal the underlying aggregate. The artistic possibilities were considerable, as the sandblasting could range from large areas to narrow lines. Intrigued, Picasso gave Nesjar permission to use a large drawing of a fisherman, as well as figures from his 1946 Triptych to make monumental engraved drawings using the Betograve technique on the walls of the Government Building, Oslo. Picasso was pleased enough with the results, conveyed in photographs, to consent to Viksjö’s and Nesjar’s next proposal: to make a large, freestanding sculpture using the same technique.
Picasso had long been interested in making large scale sculptures, and was eager to find a way to do so without compromising his artistic vision. Since Betogravure was initially used on the flat surfaces of walls, it was perhaps only logical that his planar sculptures would be selected as the starting point for the sculptural experiment, since these works shared with the Norwegian technique a creative combination of material and line, substance and flat image. Picasso rejected their ideas for using colored concrete or stones, so Head of a Woman (Tête de femme) uses pale gray gravel from a riverbed along with concrete tinted off-black for contrast. Parts of this large work follow closely the sheet-metal work Head of a Woman (Tête de femme), particularly the proper left side of both.
Picasso never saw the concrete and gravel Head of a Woman (Tête de femme), which remained in Norway for many years on the property of Viksjö, but he was pleased with the photographs he saw, and enthusiastic to make even larger sculptures using the technique. More than a dozen Betograve sculptures followed, many at a much larger scale than this first experiment; the most familiar to American audiences is probably the 38-foot-high Bust of Sylvette (1968), at New York University. Recently, the Nasher’s Betograve sculpture had to undergo conservation treatment: The metal armature inside the concrete had begun to rust and swell, causing the concrete to break off in small areas. Happily, the conservation efforts were successful—the rusting was arrested, and the concrete pieces were put back in place. Such repairs are often necessary in modern works that employ new processes or materials, and considering that Head of a Woman (Tête de femme) has spent its almost 60 years of existence outdoors, from the chill of Norway to the heat of Texas, its materials have aged very well indeed.