Christo on His Life and Work
By Jason Edward Kaufman
The following interview was conducted by art critic Jason Edward Kaufman at Christo’s Howard Street home and studio in New York City on October 15, 2014. The text has been edited for concision and clarity.
Jason Edward Kaufman: Can you recount your early life in Bulgaria and your escape to the West?
Christo: I was born in Bulgaria but my mother is Macedonian. She came as a refugee in 1911 when she was seven years old. My father was half Bulgarian and half Czech. My mother grew up in Sofia and became a leftist-oriented woman. After college she was a secretary in the National Academy. In the 1920s she met my father [when visiting her friend] in Gabrovo, a small industrial town in mountains that the Turks called Balkans (not the ones in Serbia) where he worked as a chemist [preparing solutions to treat raw fabric]. That is where I was born.
When the Communists came to power we were persecuted. My father owned a chemical laboratory and my mother [at the Academy] was an outspoken critic. We moved to a town south of there and Communists installed by the Soviets nationalized everything — no private property, including the laboratory. They kicked us out of our house [Christo’s father was arrested] and the Communists wrote on our house, “Here live the enemies of the people.” It is a long terrible story.
In 1953 after university I went to the Art Academy in Sofia. But of course, in the last days of Stalin there was very severe implementation of Socialist Realism and propaganda. The only benefit was learning about Marx and Engels and dialectic. Still today I am very grateful for that. I am not a Communist — I was persecuted by them – but I believe many things Marx wrote in Das Kapital.
I was in the Art Academy, but at that time you could not even see a reproduction of modern art. Everything was declared “decadent.” I had a chance to see a Skira book with plates of Picasso and Braque in 1951 or 1952. Because my parents were persecuted and my father was an enemy of the people, there was no way I could even go to another Communist country. Even to visit Russia was impossible. But I had relatives in Prague, another Communist country, and finally in 1955 I got permission to visit them, the brother of my father and his Czech wife and my cousins.
It was terrible in Sofia. The Hungarian Revolution started in 1956. I was 21 and in a desperate moment I tried to go to Prague, but they stopped the trains so I could go only by plane. I struggled to raise the money and arrived in Prague. It was my first time in a Western city, and I liked it so much more than anything I had seen in Bulgaria that I decided I would never go back.
I made my way through the early Cubist collection and Paul Klee in the National Museum, the first time I saw modernistic art. To survive I was doing portraits of the rich people in Prague. I remember portraits of a medical doctor’s family I met through my uncle. I was living in my relatives’ house, but I learned that there is a way to go to the West [i.e., outside the Soviet realm] if you pay a bribe at the border and travel in secret. This is how I escaped from Prague to Vienna on January 10, 1957.
Czechoslovakia was a big pharmaceutical producer and shipped medicine to the U.N. by commercial railway. I went with another 16 people hidden in a commercial railroad car to the border, then the Austrian agent came to take the four wagons to Vienna. At the first stop in an Austrian railroad station we knocked, and they took us out. They said, “Wait here and a passenger railcar will come and take you to Vienna station where there will be a refugee official waiting for you. If you escape you should know, never go to a refugee camp.” Vienna already had 250,000 refugees from Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
I had the address of a friend of my father. My father had met him when studying chemistry science at University of Vienna in 1918-20, and I don’t know how I had his address. From the railroad car on the way to the final Bahnhof in Vienna…I walked away. I didn’t speak any language except Russian and Bulgarian, and had no relatives, nobody in the West. I got in a taxi and showed him the address. I was thinking, if the people are not there [I will not be able to pay the fare, and] the taxi will take me to the police station and I will tell them I am a refugee.
I arrived late in the day, 6 or 7 o’clock in the evening. It was already dark. I rang the bell and the man was there! He paid the taxi and his wife, who was a lawyer, told me, “No, don’t go to the police station. I have an idea.” Because I had my university card from University of Sofia I would register at University of Prague as an art student. The wife took me to the office of the kunstakademie in Vienna and I was registered. This way the police could not take me to a refugee camp because I was already a student. I needed to write a letter to the Bulgarian government explaining why I became a refugee [sought political asylum]: to have freedom to do my art. They took my Bulgarian passport — the police were obliged to give my passport to the Bulgarian embassy with my letter that I refused my national citizenship.
My parents and brothers were very persecuted when I escaped. Two brothers, one older and one younger, stayed in Bulgaria. The older brother is a famous theater and cinema actor in Bulgaria. He’s like Paul Newman there. Vladimir [Yavachev] is his son. I met the U.N. people in Vienna and made portraits of them and signed “Javacheff.” They suggested I go to Paris and offered to help. The U.N. refugee office is in Geneva. I was in Vienna from January to late August 1957, then in September I arrived in Geneva and lived there from September to February 1958 making portraits and saving money to get a temporary visa to go to Paris. Travelling with stateless documents of the Austrian government, I went by train and in March 1958 I arrived in Paris.
How did you come to work with Jeanne-Claude?
Jeanne-Claude would say that she became an artist only through love for me. We met in Paris when we were barely 23 years old. I was a political refugee in France and she was a worldly young woman who had traveled all around speaking many languages. (In Communist Bulgaria it was not permitted to learn the “imperialistic” languages, except Russian.) I met her through making portraits of her mother. I painted many wealthy people in France. She was very young, I was very young – it was a big love affair, really. We were married when our son was two years old. Imagine what her family thought of that! But she was an incredible partner.
In 1964 you both moved to New York and wound up owning this five-story industrial building in SoHo. How did that happen?
This is the only place I have lived for 50 years. In Spring of 1964 we were staying in the Chelsea Hotel where I made work to show with [dealer] Leo Castelli who I had met in Paris. We liked America so much, but I had only a three-month tourist visa. When we returned to France we decided to move to New York, but it was impossible to get an immigration visa. We went to the American consulate in Place de la Concorde and a young gentleman said, “But you were just in America and you want to go back again?” And Jeanne-Claude said, “Yes, we have friends getting married and we would like to go to their wedding.” He said, “Are you sure you won’t stay?” And we said, “Absolutely, we will come back to Paris.” We put together a few things and in September returned to the Chelsea Hotel with our son who had been staying with Jeanne-Claude’s parents.
Desperately walking around SoHo we found this place. [The suggestion came from Claes Oldenberg, who had a studio there and knew the upper floors were vacant.] The building was mostly empty since 1940, and the owner agreed to rent us the two top floors. We still owed so much money to the Chelsea Hotel. Jeanne-Claude often would go to the desk and ask them to give us $100 and put that on the bill. The owner, Stanley Barr, took a work of art on deposit and let us move out.
Our visas expired and for three years we could not leave the United States. To settle our legal situation I asked [Castelli’s wife] Ileana Sonnabend if she knew a lawyer, and she recommended a woman that she and Leo had used when they arrived in the ‘40s. I needed letters of recommendation to stay, and Leo went to Washington to testify and [Metropolitan Museum curator] Henry Geldzahler wrote a letter. Finally in 1967 I had a green card. Jeanne-Claude had French citizenship, but she also had to get a green card. For 17 years I was a political refugee.
In 1972 we were still so broke, and the owner of our building, Mr. Rosenbaum, told me, “Kiddo, you need to leave because I would like to sell the building.” Jeanne-Claude said, “Mr. Rosenbaum, you cannot sell. Where will we go? This is terrible.” She said, “I will buy it!” He asked, “How can you buy it when you can’t pay the rent?” But Jeanne-Claude wrote to dealers, collectors, and museums, and we managed to deposit $35,000. But the building was around $140,000 and no bank would give us a mortgage. Mr. Rosenbaum gave us the mortgage! He was a very lovely gentleman, like a father.
That is the story of our staying here. Now we use the building basement-to-the-top, including our living space, offices, storage, and this floor where I show my work to collectors and visitors. Only three people work here: Jeanne-Claude’s nephew Jonathan, my nephew Vladimir, and myself, and we have security to receive packages and move things.
Most of your projects are immense outdoor installations. How do you use this studio to do such works?
All the projects start from our ideas, but we need to put the projects on paper to make people understand what we would like to do. I draw on paper, or make scale models, or collages, or photomontages. It’s very much like an architect [conveying] our vision. [In this activity] I work alone with no assistant. Not one single work of art is done by somebody else. Even the sculpture and the frames. But when we realize the projects, it’s not like a painting or sculpture, but a slow process of putting together a team of people.
Was Jeanne-Claude a partner in conceiving the ideas for projects?
Sometimes it was my idea, sometimes Jeanne-Claude’s idea. For example, Surrounded Islands was Jeanne-Claude’s idea. The ideas are very exciting, but making the things is incredibly complicated. Getting permission is often the most difficult part of the process, because we are foreigners and some people always resist. Jeanne-Claude was a really incredible negotiator. She had the mind and talent and intelligence to articulate and to talk to people in a very calm, sensible, and simple way. She had an incredible capacity to adjust her behavior — with ranchers, Japanese farmers, generals, senators, congressmen, politicians. Harvard Law School gave us their Great Negotiator Award after The Gates, and it was really for Jeanne-Claude. Jonathan and Vladimir have worked here over twenty years, and today, when things become difficult, we are always thinking, what would Jeanne-Claude say now? But she is not here. She was unbelievable, irreplaceable.
The negotiations must be extremely delicate. How do you propose a project to a community?
We start little by little. When we find a location and people do not know about the project, we have to explain it to the people who will give us permission. How do we do it? We hire lawyers, we hire engineers, we meet with people, and with a very low profile start moving into the community to find who are the movers and shakers who can help us.
With Running Fence, in the early ‘70s, we invited a group of ranchers and their wives and children, like 200 people, to dinner at Sonoma Joe, the huge restaurant near Highway 101. We showed the Valley Curtain film [about their previous project], then color slides that gave a rough idea of the proposal. We explained that we’d like the fence to move from the ocean, through villages and towns, up hills, and end with one of the most visible parts of California, the highway. Highway 101 was 24 miles from the coast. This is why the project became 24 miles. If the 101 were ten miles from the coast, probably Running Fence would be only ten miles. This is typical of how a project is introduced to the community. Before that we go to government agencies because we have to have permission.
Your projects have always involved the political process and a social dimension.
We are probably the only artists who really work in a political and social system. All other art that is political or social is illustration. Our projects physically involve politics, physically involve the social system. The Reichstag project decision was done with a full vote of the Parliament of the nation. We defeated the prime minister of Germany, Mr. Kohl. This is real politics, the art of real things, not art of reproduction or illustration. All these drawings I make are illustrations of the things I’d like to do, just as most art in the galleries today is basically illustration. But I like real things. I don’t have a driver’s license, I don’t like to talk on the telephone, I can’t even open a computer. That virtual reality is absolutely nonexistent for me. The real things are the Reichstag, the water, the space….and all these projects carry reality as an essential part of the work. Because of real things the work involves enormously different groups of people, not only the art world. Jeanne-Claude used to say that that art openings are like going on holiday, a private club where everyone knows one other. For our projects we go through incredible arguments and battles with so many people. We work with Japanese rice farmers, politicians, scientists, and the participatory public. We enjoy that.
It is astonishing that you independently finance your projects though sale of those artworks.
We don’t accept gifts of money, any grants or anything. We are totally independent. We cannot have a sponsor tell us, “We cannot give you more money. You should cut here and here.” The visual part, the aesthetical quality is expensive. It’s not something you can cut corners with. And we don’t like to thank somebody or have someone say that a project happened because of Mr. Smith. All the works of art are copyrighted and trademarked, so suppliers cannot use them in advertising. We are approached all the time, but basically we don’t like to be used.
And you are your own dealer, as well?
I never had the chance to become part of the stable of a gallery. In the early ‘60s we worked with some galleries, some private dealers, but little by little we understood that we need to do it our own way, that if people like to buy a work of art they should come to where we live. Already in the 1960s we met some museum people and collectors who were very interested in my work. The first museum exhibition was 1966 in the Stedelijk van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, and from then we tried to sell the work ourselves. Starting with Valley Curtain and the Running Fence we needed to have cash flow, but individual works cost only around $900. It would take years [to finance a project]. Jeanne-Claude decided we would sell to collectors and dealers who spend at least $10,000, and later we increased the minimum. No dealer can supply the cash we need for our projects. We thought, why should our 55 years of museum and collector relationships go to a dealer?
But one of your projects, The Umbrellas, cost $26 million, and The Gates cost $21 million. Do sales cover the expense?
Through all these years I do a lot of original works and put aside many preparatory studies from each period. And we constantly bid at auction to buy my work back, so we have an enormous amount of important early works, which collectors and museums like to have [and which command the highest prices]. But collectors, dealers and museums are notoriously slow payers…and we cannot say to our workers we cannot pay you because Mr. Smith has not paid yet. So we work with banks that give us a line of credit to have that cushion of cash flow and avoid underselling of the works. We prefer to borrow the money, pay the interest, and keep the price of the work stable.
When did you begin that model of business?
To realize Surrounded Islands in three years we needed immediate cash. We already were banking with Citibank where Jeffrey Deitch had started an art-lending service. We asked to have a $1 million line of credit, and he came to the huge storage we had in Long Island City and they gave us the line of credit [collateralized with artwork]. This was the first time, and after that we started to borrow more and more because the projects became more expensive. It has worked very well. Harvard Business School did a case study in 2008 that explained why, for example, Bank Leu gave us a credit line of $6 million for The Gates. They showed that our art was valuable and there was ongoing demand, and we have always paid back every loan with interest. As it happened, sales were enough so we did not need to use that loan. I do sell very many things. A lot of the money comes also from multiple editions. We have done 170 editions, often of non-realized works. The publisher pays for the entire edition and we have money right away. I use the capitalist system to the very end.
I understand that you and Jeanne-Claude created a corporation to handle the financial and legal administration of your projects.
In the late 1960s, our lawyer Scott Hodes in Chicago decided we need to have a structure to pay the bills. We established CVJ Corporation [the initials stand for Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, the artist’s given name] that deals with the banks as well as the lawyers and different advisors we hire.
How many preparatory works do you make?
I do not do drawings once the project is realized. They are done before and reflect the evolution of the project. So the number varies because of the permissions. The Reichstag project was refused three times over 25 years, so that has the biggest amount of original works — over 600 works, from letter-sized sketches to four different large-scale models. For works like Valley Curtain and Surrounded Islands that take only a few years to realize, there are not as many original works. The Gates and Over the River have not so many because for long periods there was almost no chance to start permitting, and we did not work. When a project is refused early and we decide not to do it, there are fewer works and sometimes these are very expensive. The moment we get permission the demand for the work becomes much bigger, because people know the project will be realized. This is why we try to not sell too much in advance because after we get permission the price climbs.
Do you make a profit from the public projects?
No. We never charge admission and accept no sponsorship. In fact, I pay rent. I paid $3 million to NYC for The Gates. In 2011 the US Department of the Interior gave permission to install Over the River, but environmentalists sued to stop it, and lost, and the court just upheld that decision. The State of Colorado also won a case but it was appealed and that case continues. But we spent $14 million on that project already. I am paying $87,000 a year in rent to the US government, and now we need to extend it another three years because permission expires in 2015. [Christo abandoned the project in 2017.]
Your works can take decades to realize. Can you describe the process from start to finish?
All our projects have two distinct periods: the software period and the hardware period. The software period is when the project does not exist, and the hardware period when we physically engage with the physical reality of the work and site – the dimensions, proportion, materials, the water, wind, sun, the construction and finally exhibiting the project. All this together is the work of art, not only the 14 days it is on view.
Each project has a project director and chief engineer for the technical part. We try to painstakingly prepare everything, but we don’t know how smoothly it will go. It’s not like building a normal building or bridge. We have to find the right people, suppliers, a huge amount of things. Time is very restrictive. The project is to be exhibited at a particular time, not like a normal construction job that we can postpone.
We always do life-sized tests in some secret place. That’s where we argue and scream — the fabric should be thicker or should be mounted this way, the cable should be like that, the proportion or distance is not right, etc.. Jeanne-Claude was very much part of that, along with advisors and some engineers. That collective phase is so beautiful because that is the moment when you see the work growing from the schematic drawings and scale models and developing the dynamics of the real thing.
Then comes the challenge of actually installing.
There are two steps: first the professional people come to do the [heavy] construction work, then at the very end we have non-skilled workers. We need to recruit so many people, and we pay them a quarter above minimum wage. They volunteer to work, but everyone is paid. Why? Jeanne-Claude said they need to have workmen’s compensation because they can be hurt, and secondly, it is real work, not a picnic. If you don’t work we fire you, and you cannot fire volunteers! We need to have people who wake up early in the morning and work.
In the years before email we gave lectures at universities, and the young people can give their names. They are asked to come two weeks to the site and work. Each of them tries to find a place to sleep, and we help them. They train with professional people to learn what they will do. (For The Gates all the training was at a big plant in Maspeth, Queens.) They need to have tags, insurance, labor documents, taxes, all this paperwork. They wear a special uniform to be recognized as part of the project. During the exhibition we need monitors, and some of them like to stay to do that also. We have people distribute fabric samples, explaining the project. And some of them also work on the removal of the project. Everything is recycled, not only the fabric, but the steel, the cables. From training, installation, exhibition, and removal, some can work on a project for months.
What motivates you to undertake these enormous projects?
It’s very important to understand that these projects are all about freedom. Probably it comes from my time of total oppression in Communist Bulgaria. Instead of piano lessons I had drawing, oil painting and sculpture, and made scale models like an architect. As a little boy I dreamed of visual things. But in that period it was a horror story when a teenager wanted to be an artist. I escaped at 21 years old and I will never, never give one millimeter of my freedom. I cannot do anything compromised. I have an absolutely foolish attitude to do the things I like to do. These projects are designed by us and we like to build them because we like to see them. If someone likes them it’s only a bonus. They are totally useless, absolutely irrational, unnecessary. They all are about aesthetics, all about freedom. Every artwork that has a “meaning” is pure propaganda. It can be religious propaganda, economic propaganda, environmental propaganda — it’s all propaganda. That is what I am allergic to. I lived in a Communist time when they had nonstop Socialist Realism. I escaped and feel so free, and a visceral joy to do the things I like to do.
What inspires you to envision a particular project?
I am very open and I cannot tell you from where inspiration can come. Each project has its own genesis, but they are not the same. Each project has its own story. But certainly a month from now I may have an idea. I cannot tell you that I will not have an idea.
How do you decide where to do a project?
Sometimes we know the site, like Central Park, the Reichstag, the Pont-Neuf, or the islands. Other times we have only the concept and need to find the location, like the Running Fence, Valley Curtain, The Umbrellas, Over the River. We need to scout to find a location, and always try to find a number one and number two site if one is refused. They are either in an urban place or the countryside, but always near where people live. We never do the project in some faraway landscape because in the wilderness you will never recognize the scale of the work. You need to have a telephone pole, a road, a house, to see the scale. The projects are dealing with a space that is not the normal space of the art milieu. Twenty-four hours a day we are subject to highly regimented space in which someone has designed the sidewalk, the green light, the crossing. Jeanne-Claude always said we like to borrow that space and create gentle disturbances for a few days.
Concern about the environment has been rising. Has that influenced your projects?
Jeanne-Claude said that if you have to classify our work it’s probably best to say “environmental art,” because we do works in urban space and rural places: the “environment.” But I did works in the environment already 50 years ago, starting with Running Fence, Valley Curtain, the Australian Wrapped Coast. I don’t do these projects because the environment is fashionable. We always have people protesting. I remember a protest in Australia that I would wrap the furry penguin in 1969! There was a bomb threat during installation of Running Fence! But we commission detailed environmental-impact studies. Professor W.A. Weber of the University of Colorado discovered a new lichen at the site of Valley Curtain, and he named it Lecanora Christoi. I have a lichen named for me by a biology professor.
Do you think of your projects as art objects or as architecture?
All my life I wanted to be artist. When I was very young my mother saw [my interest] and when I was five or six or seven years old I had private lessons in art and architecture. At the Sofia Art Academy the teaching was in the 19th-century academy style. It was an eight-year program to study architecture, painting, sculpture, decorative art, even two semesters on the anatomy of the human body. I escaped in my fourth year and you see very well that I have not decided what I am.
When we wrapped the Reichstag, The New York Times would not send their art critic to write about it. They sent their architecture critic because Wrapped Reichstag was architecture, not an object. It is similar to building a highway or bridges. The projects have this reality. There is a lot of similarity with urbanism and architecture.
But we are working with light, proportion, movement, dimensions. Surrounded Islands was like giant shaped canvases, but you have the color of the water, not only the pink fabric, and the tropical vegetation. You should see all that together as the work of art. One gate is not a work of art, two is not the work. It is 7,503 gates and 23 miles with the skyline of Manhattan. The same is true of The Umbrellas and Running Fence. The fabric is not the work of art. After The Gates there were many rich collectors and museum people who wanted one or three gates. A big-name dealer was upset that we didn’t let them sell umbrellas. Total idiots! They really don’t understand anything.
All these projects are about a global reception of aesthetics. Aesthetics is not something involving only flat things or beautiful sculptures turning around. It is complexity. You should see these works as a leap from normal art. For example, the cubist collages make a leap to glue newspaper and rope and other things to the paper. You should see in our work that leap of art. Many artists do “installations,” but we appropriate real things to create something that has never been considered in the art milieu.
A constant in your work is the use of fabric to wrap or create a barrier. What is behind that?
The principal material is the fabric because it conveys the nomadic quality of the project. They are fabricated off site and installed like when a nomadic tribe builds their tents. Also there is the sense of fragility. All these projects translate this passing away, for in a few days, like the tents, they will be gone forever. When rock climbers were wrapping the Reichstag people watched, and after we removed the fence people walked up to the fabric and thousands of them wanted to touch it. You don’t see the people touching the [bare] buildings. With the fabric it became very sensual and that is very important.
The best example of fabric in a work of art is Rodin’s first version of the Monument to Balzac. He made [a sculpture of the novelist] totally naked with big belly and skinny legs, then took the real cape of Balzac and put it in liquid plaster. He used it to hide all details of the body and highlight the principal proportions of the figure. With the Pont-Neuf or Reichstag we did exactly that: suddenly the fabric is hiding all the decoration and you see the basic manmade structure in an elegant fabric that melts into the stone of the city of Paris.
The Pont-Neuf is the oldest bridge in Paris and the first without a toll to cross. It became the most painted subject in the history of art in France. In the 17th or 18th century there was a saying, “Do not be a Pont-Neuf painter!” I said to the Minister of Culture that for 450 or 500 years, Pont-Neuf was a subject for painters from Jacques Callot to Renoir and Picasso. But for 14 days Pont-Neuf will itself be an object of art — not the subject but the object of art. This is why we chose Pont-Neuf and not the Eiffel Tower or Sacre Coeur.
Soon after arriving in the West you wrapped commercial products such as bottles and even cars, and created life-size renderings of shop windows covered with fabric. Are the larger projects continuations of the same idea?
Valley Curtain, Running Fence, The Umbrellas are not wrapping, but they are linked to the early works. In the Store Fronts there is a vertical obstruction, a façade with fabric hanging where there is something happening behind. You can feel some genesis of the formal dimension of the Valley Curtain and Running Fence in the “Storefronts.” They developed this separation of space. A fence is [usually] enclosing, but this is a fence that is running very free, totally irrationally. The Gates is totally different. It became completely inner space, walking inside the corridor of the gates. You can see in all our projects there are many things. Jeanne-Claude and I love water, the coastline, oceans, and rivers. There is a lot of playing with the point when the earth ends and the water starts. And the dynamic of water is very beautiful.
How do you choose the fabric colors?
The color always comes late in the development of the project. All our temporary works are designed for a particular season: Surrounded Islands for Spring before hurricane season, The Umbrellas when the trees are leafless so you can see through the branches. We chose saffron for The Gates to contrast with the silver of the trees in winter. When we wrapped the Pont-Neuf we chose a stone color to meld with the stone buildings of the city. Only when approaching do you see the work of art moving with the wind. They are all very dynamic projects, not at all static objects. Everything is living.
And they are spectacular public events. Can you speak about the audience?
They are always works of public dimension. The important thing is that the people go about their life and the work is there, woven into their life. For 14 to 16 days the projects became part of everyday life, and that particular moment makes them so precious to see because tomorrow they will be gone forever. This is why all our projects have a group of people who go to see them. They take a train or car or walk to see them because they like to experience something once in a lifetime, never again. Some of them saw projects 30 years ago. Even ranchers from Running Fence and people from The Umbrellas in Japan came to see the Reichstag project.
The projects are inviting, curious and sensual, but you cannot experience them if you don’t like the rain or the wind, if you don’t like walking or don’t have the time. Usually people look at a work of art for several seconds, but in the film of The Gates a lady said, “You cannot look at that for seven seconds!” These projects have a visceral physicality. You need to be there to experience them.
How did you and Jeanne-Claude engage with the completed projects?
When a project was exhibited we loved to be with the work. We have only these 14 days and Jeanne-Claude would say we don’t need to see friends during the day, we’ll see them during the evening. We are very conscious of the temporary character of the work, which is why we extensively photograph and film, recording the entire process. I design many books, and each of our projects has its own large documentation exhibition to articulate the multi-faceted quality of the work.
Did one of the works cause a reaction that was surprising to you?
Probably Jeanne-Claude would remember more things, but I can tell you a lovely story. Jeanne-Claude liked to tell this because she loved funny things. When the pink fabric of Surrounded Islandswas installed and exhibited, an elderly lady came to our headquarters and asked a manager, “Who is the artist? I would like to talk with them.” Jeanne-Claude was there, and she said, “I am the artist.” The lady said, “Ugh, this is terrible.” Jeanne-Claude asked, “You saw the work?” The lady said, “I didn’t see it, but I saw it on television and it’s terrible. It looked like a giant Pepto Bismol spill.” Jeanne-Claude said, “Okay, if that’s what you think.” Two or three hours later an older man came, again trying to find the artist. He said to Jeanne-Claude, “Ahh, this is marvelous. I’ve never seen anything like it in all my life. I will never forget, it looks like a giant Pepto Bismol spill.” Jeanne-Claude loved that story! Thirty years ago, I can’t believe it. The point is that all our projects are bigger than our imagination. All interpretations are legitimate.
Is there something that’s never been told about one of your projects?
Many things. For example, why we built umbrellas. No one has asked us that. We developed a relationship with Japan. We had exhibitions and lectures, curators and collectors bought our work. I love the food, the people — they are doers, and I hate lazy people. Friends said, why not do a project in Japan? I wanted to represent the differences and similarities of Japan and the US, the two richest countries in the world at that time. It would take place simultaneously in Japan and the US, like a work of art on two different canvasses, a diptych. At first I thought of building houses to represent the way the two places are settled, but realized that would be too complicated. I considered building tents, but that would take too long and be too enclosing. It needed to be open, so we decided to build a roof of a house without walls: an umbrella, with a floor at the base of the pole. People thought [we chose that form] because Japanese like umbrellas! Why yellow and blue? We did the project in autumn when the landscapes of California and Japan are in diametric opposition — California burned by the sun to golden grass, Japan pouring rain. Blue umbrellas were for wet, and yellow for dry.
Do you ever look back in amazement at your past accomplishments?
I remember the last time with Jeanne-Claude that I was in Australia in 2007. We went to the coast and she said, “My god, we wrapped 1.5 miles of coastline with 85-foot tall cliffs, the wind, the rocks, the South Pacific Ocean with sharks, and I dislocated my shoulder. We had 30 miles of ropes. We have to be totally nuts, crazy to do that!” Each project is like a journey that is absolutely unbelievable, of friendship, drama, relationships, excitement, emotion, all kinds of things.
What kind of project would you not do?
The projects that were never realized [there are 47] I will never go back to do again. Like wrapping the trees of the Champs-Élysées or buildings in Lower Manhattan. You need to have this desire to do it, and if you lose the desire why should you? After the refusal of our proposal to wrap MoMA we tried to wrap the Whitney Museum, which had just been completed in the mid ‘60s. Some collectors approached me with the idea, I met the architect Marcel Breuer and made a scale model and drawings. We never got permission. Then a year ago, I got a call from Adam [Weinberg, the current director], and he said, you know we are closing the Breuer building and moving downtown, and if you’d like to wrap the museum….” I said, “You are out of your mind, Adam. That was 40 or 50 years ago.” Each project has its own time. If we wrapped the Reichstag in the ‘70s it would not have been so good. The three refusals and 25 years of struggle created great energy when the Reichstag was wrapped in 1995. The same thing with The Gates. The projects, even sometimes when refused, find their right moment to happen.
Which artists have influenced you? Do you collect the work of other artists?
Art historians can tell you about influences. I am not a collector, but I have exchanged with artist friends. I knew [Gerrit] Rietveld in Paris and traded a little package for a [1963 version of the architect’s famous] 1919 armchair and a drawing by him. I have a Miró sculpture, a Fontana slashed canvas, a Guenther Uecker from the early 1960s, a Carl Andre sculpture. I knew Andy very well and we have a nice original Warhol. I have a Duchamp [the multiple Box en valise]. He was a very dear friend. We met him in the very early ‘60s and he loved Jeanne-Claude because he loved funny stories and puns, and Jeanne-Claude was a great storyteller. He was coming to have dinner, and he was already frail, and we were on the two top floors, and when Marcel was coming, Jeanne-Claude had me place stools on all the landings so he could rest while climbing the stair to our fourth floor. He was so nonchalant, totally easy. He owned a study for Wrapped Coast, and he dedicated to Jeanne-Claude a very nice photograph by Ugo Mulas of him sitting in a Max Ernst chair looking at the famous photograph of him playing chess with the naked girl.
What are you working on right now when you are in between projects?
There is a huge amount of effort keeping up the moral of people supporting the project in Colorado. And we will be going soon to Abu Dhabi to work on getting permission for The Mastaba [a nearly 500-foot-tall sculpture made of oil barrels]. The president of UAE, Sheikh Khalifa, had a stroke, and things there are slow, no movement. Here in Colorado it’s another story. But this software period is very enjoyable, like a dream world, going to Abu Dhabi, going to Colorado. It is not at all boring. We hope very much that the remaining legal challenge to the Over the River project will be heard by the state court in the next few months, and the decision will let us proceed with installation, but we don’t know for sure. These things are very exciting.
Would you say the work is fulfilling?
It’s a pleasure and it has many layers. I like to be in the studio to focus only on formal aesthetics, and I enjoy doing the work outside the studio. I love human relations, talking with people, putting the project together, putting together a team. I live through these projects and spend a lot of time working, but I enjoy it so much I would say it is a hobby. I am not interested in having holidays, because these projects are like a holiday. Imagine to fly from the desert of Abu Dhabi to the mountains in Colorado with the snow and the gorgeous landscape. To not think of it as a holiday you’d have to be out of your mind.
How has your work changed over the years?
One thing I can tell you is different today. When we were younger, Jeanne-Claude and myself, even if we had difficulty with permits we would say, well, we can take another three or four years and probably we can pull it off. Even though the Reichstag took 25 years, we would say, okay, the government will change. Now I can’t think in that order. I will be 80 in June and I recognize that I don’t have the luxury of three or four years. I know that probably I will be gone, or something will happen, and this is very frightening. That is why never in my life have I worked as much as today.
Jason Edward Kaufman (c)
This interview appeared in Christo and Jeanne-Claude en Uruguay [catalogue of exhibition at Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Atchugarry, Manantiales (Maldonado), Uruguay, Jan. 8-Apr. 8, 2022], MACA/Fundación Pablo Atchugarry, Maldonado, Uruguay, 2022, pp. 268-286 (English) and pp. 192-211 (Spanish).