Christo’s Visionary Enterprise
By Jason Edward Kaufman
The Bulgarian-born American artist Christo liked to work big. He and his wife Jeanne-Claude, his creative partner, mounted some of the most epochal public artworks in the past half century, building a nylon fence that meandered 24.5 miles across northern California, surrounding 11 islands in Florida with floating pink fabric, wrapping the Pont Neuf in Paris and the Reichstag in Berlin, and installing thousands of saffron-colored gates in New York’s Central Park.
These ambitious undertakings have made Christo and Jeanne-Claude legendary figures in the annals of postwar art. Harnessing the materials and techniques of industry, and engaging the workings of government, the couple accomplished projects more appropriate to corporate enterprise and public infrastructure than to artists. In so doing they expanded the purview of fine art beyond the traditional notion of artistic practice. Their endeavors involved thousands of participants and spectators in happenings that transformed our perception of the manmade and natural environment.
In all, Christo and Jeanne-Claude completed 24 temporary public installations, but another 46 projects were never realized. The obstacles were not so much logistical as political. Navigating bureaucracy, negotiating permissions, and obtaining the permits needed to operate on such enormous scale in the public sphere often took decades, and only by passion, dogged determination and suasion did the artists succeed.
A popular misconception is that public funds and volunteers underwrote these ventures, the cost of which could reach tens of millions of dollars. But the artists bankrolled everything through the sale of artworks. The projects were never for sale, admission was free, and workers were all paid. Christo accepted no sponsorships or donations because he wished to maintain total control. “I escaped from a Communist country at 21 years old and I will never, never give one millimeter of my freedom,” he said.
Christo’s rejection of authority led him to operate outside the normal commercial channels of the art world. He showed with prominent galleries but never had an exclusive representative, instead selling directly from his studio. The pieces he sold were never based on completed projects, but preparatory studies – drawings, collages, photomontages, reliefs, scale models, and lithographs — as well as early independent artworks that he and Jeanne-Claude had saved or reacquired at auction. He produced the studio pieces without an assistant, including framing; Jeanne-Claude, who was untrained as an artist, never took part. The works commanded high prices – their auction record during his lifetime was $433,000 (and significantly increased after his death) – but to ensure cash flow to cover expenses and payroll, the CVJ Corporation – established to limit the artists’ personal liability – often secured bank loans, collateralized with artworks, that they always repaid with interest.
Considering the amount of time and money that went into them, it boggles the mind that the projects were temporary. Typically they existed for a week or two, then were dismantled, the materials recycled, and the site returned to its original condition. Immediately before and during their realization the projects engendered a media frenzy, then vanished within days, their images persisting in memory, photographs (Wolfgang Volz served as the couple’s official photographer beginning in 1971), films (Albert and David Maysles completed seven documentaries between 1974 and 2007), preparatory artworks, museum and gallery exhibitions, and on the pages of newspapers, magazines, and art-history books.
“Our works are temporary in order to endow [them] with a feeling of urgency to be seen, and the love and tenderness brought by the fact that they will not last,” said Jeanne-Claude in 2005. That is also a reason they favored fabric, a sensual material that Christo associated with impermanence and fragility, like the tents of nomadic tribes. None of the major public works physically survives.
Escape to Freedom
Christo’s individualism must be seen in relation to his upbringing. Christo Vladimirov Javacheff was born on June 13, 1935 in Gabrovo, a manufacturing city east of Sofia. His father was an industrial chemist until the Soviet-backed Communists stripped the family of property and labeled them enemies of the state. Christo studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia, a training ground for socialist-realist propaganda. At 21, while visiting relatives in Prague, he bribed a railway official to gain passage to Vienna where a friend of his father helped him enroll in the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1958, after a short stint in Geneva, he moved to Paris where he eked out a living painting society portraits and met Jeanne-Claude, the daughter of one of his sitters.
Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon was born in Casablanca – the same day and year as Christo — where her stepfather was an officer in the French army. She studied in France and Switzerland before earning a degree in Latin and philosophy at the University of Tunis. They married in 1962, and with their infant son Cyril (b. 1960) moved to New York in 1964. “I knew nothing about art,” she later conceded. “Because Christo is an artist, I have become an artist. If Christo were a dentist, I would have become a dentist.” When she died of a brain aneurysm in 2009, she had collaborated on all of his major projects, though she was not named as a co-author until 1994. “She did not think it was important,” said Christo, adding, “We decided everything together.”
Christo spent his first three years in New York as an illegal immigrant. He was granted permanent-residency status in 1967 and citizenship in 1973. He and Jeanne-Claude rented space in a five-story Soho industrial building that they purchased in the 1970s and where they lived and worked the rest of their lives. His studio occupied the fifth floor — there was no elevator — and a spacious gallery on the second floor contained a mix of old and new sculptures, reliefs and drawings and a seating alcove where Christo entertained collectors and journalists. Around 5’ 10”, wiry and spry, with wavy white hair and black eyeglasses, Christo was youthful into his 80s. When he was 79, he said that a physical trainer had “tortured” him three times a week for more than 30 years. He dressed casually, often in a khaki field jacket and jeans reflective of his intrepid approach to life and work. Naturally energetic and optimistic, he spoke with a French-inflected Eastern European accent, rarely pausing as he reeled off dates, names, and statistics with exacting precision, excitedly recounting the genesis, challenges, overlapping timelines and economics of the projects he and Jeanne-Claude completed.
Their collaboration began in Paris where Christo became intrigued by the abundance of Western commerce and product packaging. He began to wrap bottles, cans, magazines, furniture, cars, even live female models in fabric packages irregularly bound with cords. Their identity and functions concealed, these fetishized objects were imbued with mystery. Christo became known as the artist who wraps.
His ambitions grew. In New York his critique of commercial display took the form of lifesize storefronts with shrouded windows. He envisioned wrapping entire buildings in lower Manhattan, and in the late 1960s wrapped the Kunsthalle in Bern and the newly founded Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Assisted by Jeanne-Claude, Christo had begun to work at enormous scale. A plan to drape a stretch of the California coast fell through, then an art patron in Australia gave the go ahead for Wrapped Coast (1968-1969). The ten-week project used one million square feet of fabric to cover 1.5 miles of beach and cliffs up to 85 feet in height.
Then came Valley Curtain (1970-1972), a 365-foot-high sheet of orange fabric stretched across a quarter-mile valley in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado (wind necessitated its removal after only 28 hours), followed by the most celebrated project of those early years, Running Fence (1973-1976). The 18-foot-high white-nylon barrier traversed California’s Sonoma and Marin counties, crossing 59 private ranches and 14 roads before descending into the Pacific Ocean. The $3.25 million project took four years of negotiations, multiple hearings with governmental agencies, a 450-page environmental-impact report, and hundreds of workers to fabricate and install 2,050 fabric panels attached to steel poles with 90 miles of cable. Half a million people visited Running Fence during its two-week duration.
The couple spectacularly altered a marine setting with Surrounded Islands (1980-1983), a project that used fabric to encircle 11 artificial islands left from dredging Biscayne Bay, Miami. They deployed 6.5 million square feet of pink fabric to create floating expanses that extended 200 feet from the shore of each island and were anchored to the floor of the bay. Aerial photos showing the armada of tropical-pink rings spread across six miles of azure water were a media sensation. Two years later, in 1985, the artists enclosed the historic Pont Neuf in Paris in stone-colored fabric. The idea dated to 1975, but it took almost a decade of back and forth with mayor Jacques Chirac and final approval by President François Mitterand. During its two-week run an estimated three million people saw the piece, which many consider among the artists’ most beautiful.
Christo’s most expensive scheme was The Umbrellas (1984-1991). The concept was to reflect the contrasting landscapes and habitation of Japan and the United States in a project on view simultaneously on both sides of the Pacific. He considered building little houses or tents, but wanted open structures, so he settled on umbrellas 20 feet high and 28 feet in diameter — yellow for the dry climate of California and blue for the wet terrain of Japan. Individually engineered for mounting alongside roads, on hillsides, in fields, and even in riverbeds, some 1,760 umbrellas were distributed in an 18-mile inland valley north of Los Angeles, and 1,340 across 12 miles in Ibaraki north of Tokyo, requiring the permission of 25 U.S. landowners and 459 in Japan. The total cost was $26 million (equivalent to around $51 million today). The surreal installation bemused millions for 17 days until a windstorm toppled an umbrella killing a woman in California, and Christo ordered the project closed out of respect for her family. Though saddened by the tragedy, he explained that his works unfold in real space. “There is no make-believe, no theater, no spectacle,” he told a reporter, “and for me, the real world involves everything: risk, danger, beauty, energy.”
He had long wished to wrap a national capital, and in 1971 a German historian suggested that Berlin’s Reichstag, disused since WWII, would be ideal. During the Cold War Christo failed to gain consent from Soviet-controlled East Germany and Great Britain which shared control of the site. After reunification the German Parliament gave the green light, and for two weeks in 1995 the historic building was wrapped in silvery fabric, throwing a mirror up to the country’s troubled past and symbolizing hope for a new future. Four million thronged the stunning $13-million spectacle, generating an estimated $250 million in economic activity. When the wrapping came down the Reichstag was renovated as the new German parliament when the government moved from Bonn.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude finally realized a hometown project in 2005 when they installed 7,503 gates along 23 miles of walkways in Manhattan’s Central Park. The 16-foot-high gates were made of saffron-colored vinyl uprights with matching panels of wind-blown fabric dangling from a connecting crosspiece. Over 16 days that winter the $24-million project attracted 4 million visitors, a coup for Mayor Michael Bloomberg who endorsed the controversial proposal that had been rejected by previous administrations.
Meaning and Motivation
What drove Christo’s visionary dreams? The artist insisted that the works have no particular meaning, political or otherwise. “Every artwork that has a meaning is pure propaganda. It can be religious propaganda, economical propaganda, environmental propaganda — it’s all propaganda. That is what I am allergic to,” he told an interviewer. “I lived in a Communist time when they had nonstop socialist realism. I escaped to do the things I like to do. We like to build these projects because we like to see them, and if someone likes them it’s only a bonus. They are totally useless, absolutely irrational, unnecessary. They all are about aesthetics, all about freedom,” he said, and this freedom extended to the viewer. “Any interpretation of our work is legitimate,” he said, “even the most critical.”
This attitude compelled Christo’s absolute insistence on financial independence. In addition to self-funding all of their projects, Christo and Jeanne-Claude never accepted a commission, refused to allow their work to be used for commercial purposes or advertising, and received no royalties for posters, postcards, books, or films.
But beyond the aesthetic properties of the physical installations, the process of realization was itself integral to the work. Scouting potential sites, pitching projects in lectures and meetings with local officials, obtaining permits and navigating legal challenges, hiring engineers and manufacturers, managing production and shipment of components, engaging and organizing teams of workers, securing and administering funding and insurance, and staging and overseeing the complicated construction phase were all parts of a socio-industrial enterprise — unique in the art world — that collectively comprised the work of art. The physical installation that provided audiences and the artist’s themselves with a never-to-be-repeated experience became the final chapter of a journey whose execution, from concept to realization, Christo and Jeanne-Claude regarded as their artwork. In this sense, the couple pioneered art as social practice, an activity that extends beyond the cloistered studio to what Christo described as “the real world,” engaging multiple individuals, the structures and mechanisms of society, and the environment.
Their cultural initiatives relate to what in recent decades has become known as “relational aesthetics.” In a 1998 book of that title, French critic and curator Nicholas Bourriad defined the term as, “A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” Rather than produce an object, the artist orchestrates a setting or situation in which the audience interacts with the artist, performers, or with one another in a scenario calculated to elicit reflection on various matters. The situation may be a shared meal, a conversation, or, in the case of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, an intervention created and shared by communities of participants.
The experience of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects could take on a variety of meanings depending on the lens through which they were regarded. For people involved in the production there was the thrill of collaboration to realize a visionary project. Spectators could marvel at the scale and beauty of such whimsical aesthetic conceits improbably taking shape on a public stage. The projects might seem to exemplify the absurdity of contemporary art and artists, but they also could be appreciated as sculptural or architectural form, and as remarkable feats of engineering. Moreover, they invited all sorts of metaphorical readings. They might be interpreted as ecologically resonant paeans to nature or critiques of the built environment, and wrapped historical monuments — the Reichstag, for example — were occasions to rethink cultural and political attitudes, such as nationalistic pride and patriotism, that are generally considered immutable.
By defamiliarizing elements of our surroundings, Christo and Jeanne-Claude encouraged us to question our understanding of what is normal and our expectations of what is possible. Their projects generated new ideas and emotional responses, an essential function of all significant art.
After The Gates and the loss of Jeanne-Claude in 2009, Christo was out of the headlines. Some people imagined he had retired, but he had not even slowed down. He continued working on initiatives that promised to further push the boundaries of public art. Over the River was to suspend nearly six miles of woven panels over sections of a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in Colorado. The installation would have been visible to spectators from an adjacent highway, and to rafters gliding on the waters beneath the fabric. Christo had worked on the project since 1992, selecting the site, devising the structure, completing engineering and wind tests, environmental and economic-impact studies, and most crucially, seeking legal authorizations. The federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the site, and Colorado District Court granted permits in 2011, but environmentalists sued claiming that construction and throngs of visitors threatened wildlife. Federal and state courts rejected the challenge but appeals prevented a final go-ahead. “The government is in court, not me!” Christo observed, noting that he had expended millions to develop the project and $87,000 a year to lease the land from the U.S. government. In 2017, shortly after Donald Trump was elected president and before the case was settled, Christo withdrew in protest, stating, “I can’t do a project that benefits this landlord.” It was the only time in his career that Christo abandoned an ongoing project.
Concurrent with legal wrangling over the Arkansas River, Christo had turned his attention to another aquatic project, a floating fabric-covered footpath that enabled visitors to “walk on water.” He first conceived the idea in 1970 for the Rio de la Plata between Argentina and Uruguay and reimagined it in the mid 1990s for Tokyo Bay, but neither effort came to fruition. In 2014, assisted by Italian curator Germano Celant, Christo toured northern Italy in search of a suitable location and zeroed in on mountain-ringed Lake Iseo, near Brescia. Local officials welcomed the proposal, and in summer 2016 his team unveiled a floating 52.5-foot-wide dock that stretched nearly two miles, linking Sulzano on the mainland to the island of Monte Isola where it edged the lakeshore before extending via two piers out to San Paolo, an islet owned by the Beretta family.
The undulating walkway was composed of 220,000 polyethylene cubes covered with a million square feet of yellow nylon over a layer of felt, anchored to the lakebed by 200 5.5-ton blocks of concrete. The Floating Piers 2014-2016 allowed an estimated 1.6 million visitors to stroll 1.6 miles of fabric-covered streets in the scenic towns and continue their promenade across the surface of the alpine lake, the experience made more exhilarating by the absence of safety parapets along the water-lapped edge of the gently rolling footpath. The Floating Piers became the first project completed after the death of Jeanne-Claude.
Two years later Christo realized another work on water, a stack of oil drums moored in the middle of the Serpentine Lake in London’s Hyde Park. The massive sculpture — 65-feet tall, covering nearly a third of an acre, and weighing 660 tons — was a trapezoidal box with two slanted sides, two vertical sides, and a flat top. Christo said the shape was inspired by “mastaba” benches that fronted homes in ancient Mesopotamia. It was composed of 7,506 custom-made steel barrels attached in horizontal rows to a steel scaffolding mounted on a floating platform of polyethylene cubes anchored to the lakebed. The drums on the sloping sides were red and white, and their circular ends on the vertical walls formed a pixelated mosaic of blue, red, and lilac. In the changing light, abstract patterns reflected on the water, heightening the surreal impression of the immense structure hovering on the surface of the bucolic pool.
The London Mastaba (2016-2018) coincided with an exhibition in the Serpentine Galleries that traced Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s history of working with oil barrels. An early project — Wall of Barrels, The Iron Curtain (1961-1962) — barricaded a narrow Parisian street to protest the recent erection of the Berlin Wall. Unsanctioned by the city, the guerrilla action was dismantled within hours. In 1967, in response to the Six-Day War over the Suez Canal, the couple sought unsuccessfully to block the waterway with an oil-drum wall. Their proposal to construct an immense oil-drum mastaba along the corridor between Houston and Galveston, Texas, also fell through, as did a 1968 plan to float a mastaba on Lake Michigan. Smaller oil-drum mastabas were produced over the years, but none approaching the scale of the enormous London project.
The London Mastaba provided a preview of the potential grandeur of an even more audacious proposal: The Mastaba, Project for United Arab Emirates. The idea, conceived in 1977, was to construct a gigantic oil-drum mastaba in the desert of the newly founded nation, a sculpture so monumental it would rival the Pyramids. With walls composed of 410,000 oil drums in multiple colors, stacked horizontally and rising almost 500 feet on a nearly 17-acre footprint, The Mastaba would become the largest sculpture in the history of the world, slightly taller and considerably broader than the Great Pyramid of Giza. After numerous trips, dozens of meetings, thousands of pages of studies, and logistical planning costing millions of dollars, the project awaited approval from Abu Dhabi’s rulers when Christo died in 2020.
But the spectacular project may yet be achieved. Christo left instructions in his will for work on The Mastaba to continue. The artistic vision was complete, the structure designed, and engineers had devised a method of construction (the barrels would be attached to armatures lying flat on tracks from which the panels would be raised into vertical position by 500-foot-tall hydraulic towers). The team that now runs the studio — Christo’s nephew Vladimir Yavachev, Jeanne-Claude’s nephew Jonathan Henery, and Lorenza Giovanelli — is confident that the Emiratis will allow the project to proceed.
Christo once described The Mastaba as “a symbol of the civilization of oil throughout the world,” but its interpretation would remain open to multiple readings. An enormous edifice assembled from refuse of the oil economy must be seen as a critique of the petrochemical industry. The mastaba form has funeral associations because it was adopted for tombs in pre-dynastic Egypt. Christo deflected that connotation by explaining that the shape alluded to the packed-mud banquettes of Mesopotamia and to Islamic architecture. Yet, the political character of his earlier oil-barrel proposals suggests that he had in mind if not total condemnation, then at least a questioning of the power and impact of the industry. The prospective hosts of the project must be aware of this interpretation, which has gained currency in the era of climate change. But even if oil is supplanted by more sustainable forms of energy, the project would remain an appropriately awesome homage to the commodity that transformed and enriched Emirati society.
Christo emphasized the geometric form’s aesthetic beauty, noting that the colorful monument’s appearance would change with the passage of sun and shadow. Set among the dunes, and dwarfing all who approached, the uncanny structure would inspire rapture. Christo’s colossus would be a wonder of the contemporary world, a tourist destination that generates economic activity and enhances the UAE brand on the world stage by projecting the country’s participation in international culture. The Emiratis have demonstrated their ambition in this arena by building the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and establishing in Abu Dhabi satellites of the Louvre and the Guggenheim Museum housed in innovative facilities designed, respectively, by starchitects Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry. (The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is yet to be completed.) The UAE’s regional rival Qatar has erected a number of prominent public artworks by international stars, including a series of 48-foot-tall steel monoliths by Richard Serra in the desert. The Mastaba would surpass that project in scale and daring. Given the project’s potential cultural and economic impact, it seems reasonable to believe that the Emiratis will allow Christo’s only permanent installation to be realized.
Christo authorized posthumous completion of only one other project: the wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. (He told his studio managers that no other unrealized project should be pursued, and no realized project recreated.) The idea emerged in 1961, soon after Christo’s arrival in the city, when he rented a room nearby and envisioned the arch wrapped. In 1962 he made a photomontage illustrating the concept. The project remained dormant until 2017 when the Centre Pompidou was planning the exhibit “Christo et Jeanne-Claude, Paris!” to take place in 2020. Museum officials suggested that to coincide with the show Christo create a project outside the Pompidou, but Christo insisted on instead pursuing the earlier project and the museum agreed. He thought it would never happen, but the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, the City of Paris, and President Emmanuel Macron all gave consent.
The Pompidou exhibition opened in summer 2020, but Christo’s project was postponed twice, first from spring to autumn so as not to interfere with the breeding season of falcons that nested on the façade, and second by the COVID pandemic. It was finally scheduled for 16 days beginning on September 18, 2021, and installation overseen by Vladimir Yavachev strictly following his uncle’s plans. Christo had produced numerous drawings, collages, painted photographs, engineering studies and maps developing and visualizing the project. The 164-foot-high arch was draped with 270,000 square feet of silvery blue polypropylene fabric secured with almost 10,000 feet of red rope over a steel armature protecting the stone architecture and sculptural decorations.
Like the wrapped Reichstag, L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped (1961-2021) carries political resonance. Built by order of Napoleon to celebrate his military victories, the structure was completed in 1836, and after World War I became a war memorial when the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and an eternal flame were placed beneath. Temporarily concealing the iconic arch under wraps demands that we reconsider its meaning, especially ideas of imperial glory and the valor of war. But like all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects, it became a festive occasion for public gathering. To accommodate crowds, the Place de l’Etoile was closed to traffic on weekends to allow pedestrian access. Even those unable to make it to Paris could observe the goings on via a livestream on the Internet.
When Christo passed away at home in May 2020 at 84, he and Jeanne-Claude had created some of the most significant public artworks of their time. In addition to their remarkable installations, they participated in hundreds of museums exhibitions, and Christo’s artworks are in the permanent collections of the world’s top museums. Until the end he remained totally focused on making the remaining ongoing projects a reality. The completion of the L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, the studio’s first posthumous initiative, will be difficult to surpass, but The Mastaba in Abu Dhabi would be a fitting capstone to Christo’s career. “I have no time for anything except to do these projects. I love them so much,” he said. “My life is these projects.”
Jason Edward Kaufman (c)
This essay 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. 254-267 (English) and pp. 178-191 (Spanish).