Christo, Conceiver of Grand But Fleeting Art

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"The Gates," 2005. Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo by Wolfgang Volz.

Bulgarian American artist Christo, born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff on the same day in 1935 as Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, his wife and collaborator, died on May 31 in New York. He was 84.

Jeanne-Claude, who held dual French and American citizenship, died in 2009. The couple moved to New York in 1964, two years after their “Packages” — covered oil drums placed on the Cologne docks as part of a gallery exhibition — were included in a group show at the Sidney Janis Gallery.

Together, they carried out two dozen grand but fleeting projects, from installing pink borders around 11 islands near Miami and 23 miles of curtained “gates” in Central Park to wrapping in fabric the oldest bridge in Paris and the German parliament building in Berlin, the Reichstag.

It was less important than one might think that many of their projects remained unrealized. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were pioneers of conceptual art, an artistic current that values the concept behind a work over its material existence (if any). Among the other key figures of conceptualism were Yoko Ono, who, inspired by John Cage, published a book of “instruction works” — recipes for artistic creation — called “Grapefruit” in 1964 and Sol LeWitt, who wrote in 1967: “The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.”

Many museums have a boldly patterned LeWitt wall drawing, executed with his (since 2007, his estate’s) approval and supervision. Andy Warhol was another promoter of the notion that the artist’s brain matters more than his or her hand. But Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s realized projects were unlike others in requiring government approval and massive logistical effort. While resembling works of environmental or land art, they were also, without exception, temporary spectacles.

The 1,250-foot orange “Valley Curtain” in Colorado, with an opening for cars to pass through, was unexpectedly temporary, blowing down in less than two days in 1972. But it established the procedure that the couple would follow for later projects: creating a corporation to oversee construction, financed by the sale of preparatory drawings and models. The struggle to realize the vision, and the documentation of that process, also became part of the work.

In 2010, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, having acquired the bulk of the related art and documentation, mounted the exhibition “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence.” The referenced work — a white nylon curtain, nearly 18 feet high, that ran like a section of the Great Wall of China for 24 and a half miles through California’s Sonoma and Marin Counties to the Pacific — was up for two weeks in 1976, then dismantled without a trace.

Sometimes the gap between concept and realization was decades-long. The idea for “The Gates” dated to 1979. Rejected in 1981, it was revived in the Bloomberg administration. Turning Central Park into a sort of human gameboard, the 7,503 torii-like, saffron-colored frames with dangling banners were a major tourist attraction for two weeks in February of 2005. “Gatekeepers” stationed in the park handed out brochures and fabric samples; on pleasant days, it felt like a party.

Projects continued after Jeanne-Claude’s death and at least one is due to take place after Christo’s: the wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe in September of 2021, first conceived in 1962 and postponed from this year due to the pandemic. A Christo and Jeanne-Claude exhibition is planned for July through October at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the city where the two met in 1958 — two years after Christo fled to the West from Prague — when Christo was hired to paint a portrait of his future partner’s mother.

Click here to watch a video from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s 2010 exhibition “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence.” 

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