A Tribute to Christo
Although Christo, who died on May 31, 2020 at age 84, made ephemeral works intended to disappear, he and his wife and lifelong soulmate Jeanne-Claude who also used only her first name, changed the art world by involving thousands, including a dissenter like me, in creating and participating in public art works. Whether you were with them or against them did not matter because in the end they would persuade you through long harangues and indoctrination to be with them. The process of conversion might take decades, but in the end they always won by involving you not as a spectator but as a participant in their projects.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were born the same day, June 13, 1935, at the same hour. They argued all the time, but when you were with them it was as if they were one person, their thoughts were so conjoined. I am an academic art historian, normally against ephemeral installations, but Jeanne-Claude and Christo propagandized me for so many years I ended up an enthusiastic fan of their unique version of public art that actually involved the public.
Both Jeanne-Claude and Christo came from privileged backgrounds. Christo Vladimirov Javacheff was born into a prominent family in Gabrovo, Bulgaria at the time under Russian Communist control. As a child, his talent was recognized and he was given painting and drawing lessons before entering the European Academy of Fine Arts. He was assigned to advise farmers along the route of the Orient Express how to arrange their haystacks and machinery to suggest prosperity as part of a Soviet propaganda effort. Christo was working at the avant-garde Burian Theater in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1956 when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian uprising and were on the verge of invading Prague. He escaped to Vienna in a freight car filled with medical supplies. After a semester at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, he moved to Geneva and then, in 1958, to Paris, supporting himself by painting portraits of wealthy socialites.
In Paris he met Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon while painting a portrait of her mother, the wife of a Marechal de France. Jeanne-Claude told me that when she met Christo, she was married to someone but theirs was love at first sight which lasted a lifetime. She ran away with the Bulgarian portrait painter and did not speak to her parents for over two years. In 1964, the young couple decided to leave Paris with their four year old son Cyril for New York, which is when I met them. Apparently I was the first person they called when they arrived because I’m fluent in French and they spoke little or no English. I lived near the loft in SoHo where they settled and never left. I was excited about being invited for dinner since I can’t cook. Apparently neither could Jeanne-Claude. “Dinner” turned out to be a slice of white bread with ketchup. Later I was invited to elegant restaurants.
Manhattan was Christo’s present to Jeanne-Claude. In fact it was her idea to leave Paris, not his. I often visited them in their SoHo loft which was near mine. It was large and empty with Christo’s drawing studio in the back. I will never forget the photograph of Jeanne-Claude playing tennis with General DeGaulle on the bedside table. Her father had been a general in the French army in Morocco where she was born. Clearly the imperious Jeanne-Claude thought of herself as a general whose job it was to organize the army of workers needed to realize Christo’s installations and to obtain the necessary permits negotiating with various legal entities and demanding to be heard.
She prepared the documentation for the public hearings that included parliamentary sessions of the German Bundestag when they decided to wrap the Reichstag, the building Hitler chose as Nazi headquarters. Jeanne-Claude told me that no matter what the obstacles, they would not give up. It took more than 20 years of bureaucratic infighting to finally get permission to wrap the Reichstag and 10 years for permission to wrap the Pont Neuf in Paris in 1985. The idea of wrapping a major public monument apparently came out of their involvement in the revolutionary evenements de mai 1968 when French students and workers organized protests in the streets against government repression and the occupation of Algeria.
It was a wild period of youthful enthusiasm that coincided with the birth of Nouveaux Réalisme, France’s answer to Pop art created by critic Pierre Restany and artist Yves Klein. They wrote a manifesto announcing their intention to discover “new ways of perceiving the real,” Christo showed with the group, although he did not sign the manifesto. Those “new ways of perceiving the real” included Street artist Jacques Villeglé using torn advertisements as artworks and Yves Klein patenting an intense shade of blue as YK Blue to create monochrome paintings and objects. Daniel Spoerri exhibited tables lined with found objects as “tableaux pièges.”
In his Paris studio, Christo began collecting bottles, paint cans, oil drums and wooden crates, wrapping them in resin-soaked canvas tied with twine and coated with black or gray automobile paint. The next year he staged the Iron Curtain: Wall of Oil Barrels (1962). Having lived behind the Iron Curtain, he decided to parody the wall the Russians had erected to divide Berlin in an artwork. As part of his solo show at the Galerie J in Paris, owned by Restany’s wife, Janine de Goldschmidt-Rothschild, Christo barricaded the Rue Visconti with 204 stacked oil barrels while Jeanne-Claude distracted the police. The barricade was part of the revolutionary evenements de mai 1968 which brought students into the streets of Paris to protest the war in Algeria. It only dawned on me later that the oil kegs were symbolic of the role of oil in France’s colonization of North Africa.
Christo’s contribution to the Nouveaux Realistes were his early “wrappings” involving covering everyday objects including cans, newspapers, and bottles, with fabric and twine. The “wrappings” were inspired by Man Ray’s Dada object the Enigma of Isadore Ducasse (1920). The idea of wrapping an object to give it significance originated in 1962 with the miniature shop windows Christo wrapped, implying a mystery inside. He gave me one—I am embarrassed to say that I lost track of it because I didn’t consider it art. However, I was impressed by the technical skill of the totally academic drawings he made of future public projects and I loved the spirit of adventure of the young couple. Christo himself was funny, ironic and implacable. Jeanne-Claude had a sense of humor, too, no doubt, but she was even more stubborn if that were possible.
Jeanne-Claude was in charge of selling the drawings. She often complained about being “accountant in chief.” She finally—and rightfully—demanded equal billing as a co-creator in the mid-1990s. Of all the women who attached themselves to famous male artists to become more than they were, Jeanne-Claude for me was the only one who was a complete equal in conception and execution. From the outset, I always saw her as a co-creator deserving equal credit for the creation and realization of the massive projects Christo ferociously drew. Always a generous friend, Jeanne-Claude loaned me one of her red wigs—she had many in various shades—when I decided to attend Iris Love’s annual cocktail masque as Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946). I already had the sequined vintage dress and platform shoes but I needed a beautiful wavy red wig for the full disguise since I have blonde hair and look nothing like Gilda. I was drinking champagne when Leo Castelli, who came up to my shoulder in my platforms, sidled up to me with a suggestive look. I quickly removed Jeanne Claude’s wig and stopped him from advancing. “Leo, Leo it’s me Barbara,” I announced, “Remember, I work for you.” Leo looked startled because indeed at the time I was his receptionist.
One of Christo’s first monumental wrappings was the 1970–72 Valley Curtain, which was put up in Rifle, Colorado for just 28 hours. It was made of 200,200 square feet of fabric stretched over a highway that was destroyed by gale force winds. But the installation lives on in the form of a documentary film by the Maysle brothers, who ultimately documented a number of Christ’s most ambitious projects. Documentation such as the film which remains after the fabric has been removed has become key to seeing and understanding the no-longer-extant works. Along with the films were the reports regarding how much workers were paid and other expenses. The artists also made public data about the environmental ramifications of their artworks—a gesture they first undertook with the 1972–76 piece Running Fence, made of 24.5 miles of fabric that extended from a California highway to a coastline.
The first film was of the Valley Curtain of 1974, documenting the orange fabric dam built in Colorado of material that was recycled after it’s removal. Christo and Jeanne-Claude—to me they were always one person—were obsessed with wrapping bigger and bigger symbolic urban structures like the Pont Neuf in Paris in 1985 and the Reichstag in Berlin in 1995. They were finally able to do that after 24 years seeking bureaucratic approvals, raising all funds themselves through the sale of related drawings. In the beginning I was totally against the idea believing it elevated Hitler. In the end, I was for it because it made the public rethink the history of the Reichstag as the center of the Nazi high command and what they did to destroy people and culture.
For Valley Curtain, Christo and his lawyer devised a system that was used from then on. For each project a corporation was created, with Jeanne-Claude as director and Christo as a salaried employee. Financing came from the sale of drawings or public art funds. When the work was dismantled, the phantom corporation that funded it dissolved itself, earning zero profit. Employing workers and treating them well, recycling materials providing public interaction between art and the environment were their objectives. That they realized their ambition despite every kind of opposition is inspiring. To draw attention to the natural environment today seems an obvious radical act.
I told them frankly I was against their projects because they were not permanent. They explained how they themselves personally financed the work by selling Christo’s drawings and that they recycled material. We argued endlessly back and forth. My friend Bill Ridenhour, a painter who died too young, had worked on building the Valley Curtain. He explained to me how being part of the team and seeing the piece as a miracle that changed his life. In the end, Christo and Jeanne-Claude won me over because through Bill’s experience I came to understand their purpose and achievement, which was to involve the public directly in their work not as spectators but as participants. This was a radical idea at the time. How they pulled it off is a fascinating story. “The fact that their work is so accessible is a factor in the disdain and hostility it evokes in certain quarters,” Calvin Tomkins wrote in The New Yorker in 2004. “It makes some critics and quite a few artists exclude them from the pantheon of serious art.” I guess I did that until I understood their intentions and achievements which were as much political as aesthetic. They sought not to be rich and famous but rather sought participation in their projects which were never simply narcissistic projections like so much public art today.
They first began to get attention with their ambitious urban projects of the 1980s and ’90s. In Surrounded Islands (1980-83) where they dressed 11 small islands in Biscayne Bay in South Florida in flamingo-pink polypropylene “skirts,” making them look like floating tropical flowers. The next project was wrapping the Pont Neuf in Paris, stalled for decades by the political rivalry between Jacques Chirac, Paris’s mayor, and François Mitterrand, the president of France, both of whom mistakenly thought of themselves as sophisticated art critics. Finally the project was finally completed in 1985. The Pont Neuf, the 17th century stone bridge connecting the Ile Saint Louis with the mainland, was covered with 440,000 feet of honey-colored fabric that wrapped not just the bridge but its 44 lamps as well.
Christo’s even more ambitious plan to wrap the Reichstag in Berlin began with a series of drawings, the first made in 1971. There was nothing but resistance on the part of West German officials. Things changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and in 1995 the work was completed. In between wrapping the Pont Neuf and the Reichstag, Christo and Jeanne-Claude placed 1,760 yellow umbrellas in the Tejon Pass, just north of Los Angeles, and 1,340 blue umbrellas on a hillside near Ibaraki, Japan. Uniting Japan with the US, one of the 485-pound umbrellas in California came unmoored in high winds and killed a woman and injured several other people. The artists ordered the umbrellas in both countries to be taken down immediately when a Japanese crane operator made contact with a power line, electrocuting him. Their work was about life, not death, so this must have been difficult for them to absorb.
Christo maintained that The Floating Piers in Northern Italy in 2016 were the realization of his dream “to walk on water” fully enjoying the joke of Christo walking on water. The piers required nearly two miles of saffron fabric to create a walkway connecting two small islands in Lake Iseo to the mainland in Lombardy in Northern Italy. When he died this May in the same loft where he and Jeanne Claude had lived since their arrival in New York, Christo was working on wrapping the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. First conceived in 1962 while they still lived in Paris, the idea was to wrap the revolutionary landmark in 25,000 square meters of silvery blue polypropylene fabric and 7,000 meters of red rope, which could well have been a metaphor for red tape. The project is planned to be realized in September 2021, according to the statement announcing Christo’s death. “Christo and Jeanne-Claude have always made clear that their artworks in progress be continued after their deaths,” the statement said. Among the projects left to be realized is a mastaba, a flat-topped pyramid made of more than 300,000 oil drums to be built in Abu Dhabi. Christo intended this work to be his only permanent large-scale installation. He was working on it when I last saw him, now alone with Jeanne-Claude gone, but more intent and intense than ever, accompanied by his nephews who helped him.
Somewhere there is a video where Christo and Jeanne-Claude are interviewed. She is asked, “Will you ever retire?” Jeanne-Claude responds. "Retire? Artists do NOT retire. They do not retire! They die.” No less a writer than Michael Kimmelman, the esteemed architectural critic of the New York Times, published an obituary for Christo on June 1, 2020. In it, he said “I’m sorry I never got to ask Christo about Gabrovo, the Bulgarian city where he was born in 1935. He died this weekend, at 84, a dreamer with a cultish following to rival the Grateful Dead’s and a legacy that has always seemed a wry, humane retort to the cultural diktats of the Soviet bloc.”
Kimmelman remembers his drive in February, 2005 with Christo and Jeanne-Claude when an army of paid helpers wearing matching gray smocks unfurled 7,500 “Gates” in Central Park. They were made from 5,390 tons of steel covered by more than 99,155 square feet of saffron-colored vinyl costing millions of dollars. Like all their public works, everything was paid for by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, including the cost of clearing the park after the gates were removed. The couple also left a large donation to the park afterward.
Christo clearly understood his limitations as an academic not a modern art. So rather than paint landscapes, he used existing landscapes like mountains, bridges, and Central Park as his literal if ephemeral landscapes. But Jeanne Claude was relentless until she got the approvals necessary. Given the go-ahead by Mayor Bloomberg, who had become a friend to the point where one could consider him a collaborator, The Gates (2005) were finally installed in Central Park in February 2005. For two weeks, thousands wandered the 23 miles of the Central Park’s pathways, passing underneath over 7,000 steel frames that supported the free-hanging panels of saffron-colored fabric. “In the winter light, the bright fabric seemed to warm the fields, flickering like a flame against the barren trees,” Kimmelman wrote. “Even at first blush, it was clear that ‘The Gates’ is a work of pure joy, a vast populist spectacle of good will and simple eloquence, the first great public art event of the 21st century.”
Kimmelman recalls the Gates were “a testament to Christo’s childlike wonder and sheer, implacable chutzpah.” Increasingly, Christo’s popularity became a strike against him. Undaunted, he said “I find it very inspiring in a way that is like abstract poetry.” His aesthetics, as he repeatedly defined them, encompassed “everything involved in the process—the workers, the politics, the negotiations, the construction difficulty, the dealings with hundreds of people.”
“I am an educated Marxist,” Christo told Kimmelman “I use the capitalist system to the very end.” He added that his and Jeanne-Claude’s projects “exist in their time, impossible to repeat. That is their power, because they cannot be bought, they cannot be possessed.” I always enjoyed this punch in the nose they delivered to the art market with its money laundering and fake tax donations. In 2017, after he and Jeanne-Claude had worked for more than two decades spending $15 million of their own money on a project in Colorado, a fabric canopy over the river, Christo abandoned it because the land was federally owned, which made Donald Trump—when elected—its landlord. “I came from a Communist country,” he explained. “I use my own money and my own work and my own plans because I like to be totally free.” Having lived under tyranny, he knew what freedom was and it was not in his view to be ruled by an autocrat like Trump.
The process of realizing their ever more ambitious projects—like the 2016 The Floating Piers on Lake Iseo in Lombardy, Italy—required the cooperation of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of landowners, government officials, judges, environmental groups, local residents, engineers, and workers. When Jeanne-Claude died in November 2009, Christo did not take time to lament. Instead he organized an outdoor memorial for her at the Metropolitan Museum. The idea that both Jeanne-Claude and Christo are now gone saddens me. They were good friends, generous and loveable. Farewell dear Christo and Jeanne-Claude. You will never be forgotten, at least not by me. I imagine if you had a theme song, it would be “La Marseillaise.” Allons enfants de la patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé. Yes, with the realization of your vision, you have had your day of glory.