Understanding Christo and Jeanne-Claude through 6 Pivotal Artworks
In London’s Hyde Park, something extraordinary has taken place. From the banks of the Serpentine, the artificial lake that bisects the green space, you can get a glimpse of a truly awe-inspiring spectacle. Composed of 7,506 multi-colored oil barrels, it forms a vast, trapezoidal shape that rises far above the tree line and dwarfs the pedalo boats that bob aimlessly around it.
This is the London Mastaba, the latest project by the impossibly imaginative landscape artist known as Serpentine Galleries, on view June 19th through September 9th.)
Along with his late wife
Any space, from city streets to desert valleys, can become a canvas for
Christo doesn’t give explanations of his work (as he recently told the Sunday Times, “We make beautiful things, unbelievably useless, totally unnecessary”), and prior to her untimely death, Jeanne-Claude was, if anything, even less revealing. Yet it’s hard not to see their wider project as an attempt to change our relationship to landscape itself, thus opening us up to a whole new way of looking at the world. The work may all be temporary, but the ambition behind it is boundless.
Wall of Oil Barrels – The Iron Curtain (Paris, 1962)
Christo Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat met in 1958, when the former was commissioned to paint a portrait of the latter’s mother. The pair had been born on the same day in 1935—he in Bulgaria; she in Morocco, where her father served as an officer in the French army. Nevertheless, their union was an unlikely one; Jeanne-Claude came from a respectable family and was already engaged to be married. Christo, on the other hand, was a stateless art school dropout who had fled his native country—then a repressive Soviet client state—by stowing away on a goods train. Yet within a year of their meeting, Jeanne-Claude was pregnant with their first child.
Together, they began to envisage conceptual projects using whatever materials they could afford. Oil barrels were a particular focus of their early work: On the one hand, they were cheap and easy to stack to formally imposing effect; on the other, their normal function alluded to the West’s dependency on oil, opening up a frame of reference that encompassed politics, economics, and environmental matters. On the night of June 27, 1962, Jeanne-Claude and Christo began assembling their first major outdoor project: an obstacle on a narrow street in Paris’s Latin Quarter created from 89 oil drums turned onto their sides. It stretched from one end of the street to the other, completely blocking the thoroughfare to pedestrian and vehicle traffic for the eight hours it stood in place.
It caused a commotion, and the artists—who had failed to get permission from the police prefect—almost got themselves arrested. Yet for all that it angered local motorists and outraged officials, TheIron Curtain captured Paris’s imagination. Unsurprisingly, given its title and Christo’s dramatic past, some read it as a comment on the Berlin Wall, which had risen overnight in the East German capital less than a year before. The work stood as a powerful political statement—one that also presaged the barricades that would be constructed by rioting students in the area six years later.
Surrounded Islands (Biscayne Bay, Miami, 1980–83)
The next 15 years saw Christo and Jeanne-Claude go global. In 1964, they moved to New York, eventually acquiring American citizenship. From their new base, they developed their own commercial enterprise: In order to maintain artistic independence, they sold preparatory drawings and models to finance larger projects. (Christo still self-funds everything he does this way, accepting no subsidies or official partnerships.)
This new model of working allowed the artists to take on their first truly monumental projects. In 1980, they embarked on their most visible adventure yet: a proposal to surround 11 uninhabited islands in Biscayne Bay, Florida, with pink plastic “skirts” woven to fit the contours of the land. As with all of their work of this period, the project was credited to Christo alone, but he freely admits that the driving force behind the concept and its execution was Jeanne-Claude. Though this seems odd (if not indefensible), there was a rationale to it: Both believed that people would be confused by the idea of two artists working together as a single force, and in the male-dominated art world of the time, it seemed a better bet to credit Christo as the author of the work. It was only in 1994 that the billing was changed to represent Jeanne-Claude’s contributions.
After nearly three years of negotiating with both public and private bodies, the Surrounded Islands finally came into being in 1983. It involved some 6.5 million square feet of polypropylene fabric, and could be seen from miles down the coast. Though it was in place for just two weeks, the project attracted thousands of visitors and proved to be a landmark in Florida’s cultural history. As a testament to its importance, the Pérez Art Museum Miami will be showing an exhibition dedicated to Surrounded Islands from October 2018 through February 2019.
Pont Neuf (Paris, 1975–85)
Spanning the Seine River and crossing the western tip of the Ile de la Cité, Pont Neuf is Paris’s oldest bridge and one of its most historically important monuments. “I wanted to transform it, to turn it from an architectural object, an object of inspiration for artists, to an art object, period,” Christo told Le Figaro in 1985. To do this, he planned to wrap the entire structure in plastic fabric, creating a bizarre and distinctly modern illusion in the most ancient part of Paris.
Beautifully simple though the idea was, its execution would be anything but. Christo and Jeanne-Claude had worked with historical buildings before, but had never approached one that was both an icon of a major city and a busy public thoroughfare. This did not deter them, and in 1975, they began raising funds for their first big project in the French capital since 1962. This time, however, it was clear they would need permission from a dizzying number of different administrative bodies. After nearly a decade of negotiations, the project was completed in September 1985 to a sensational response, making Christo (if not Jeanne-Claude) one of the most famous artists in the world.
The Umbrellas: Joint Project for Japan and USA (Ibaraki/California, 1984–91)
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s subsequent project carried a pinch of absurdist humor and represented the greatest logistical challenge they had yet faced. The plan was to create a pair of simultaneous landscape interventions in two geographically similar valleys—one in Southern California, the other in Japan’s Ibaraki Prefecture—involving thousands of giant umbrellas spaced out at equal distances over more than ten miles. Colored pale blue in Japan and rubber-duck yellow in the U.S., the umbrellas had a surreal quality previously absent in their work, which had until now exploited industrial materials rather than leisure objects like these. The idea of going out into the wild and hoarding over 3,000 jauntily colored pieces of oversized garden furniture is one that even
Though it is now rightfully seen as one of the great land art projects of the era, The Umbrellas became the site of a tragedy. Shortly before the international exhibition was due to close in October 1991, strong winds blew over one of the Californian umbrellas, killing one visitor and injuring several more. Christo immediately demanded the dismantling of both sites out of respect for the deceased.
Wrapped Reichstag (Berlin, 1971–95)
In 1976, Christo travelled to Berlin for the first time. It proved to be an extremely significant visit. Even 19 years after his escape to the West, he had good reason to fear that he might be kidnapped by Communist spies and taken back to Bulgaria for punishment. Nevertheless, he was drawn to the no-man’s-land between East and West Berlin, and particularly to its most prominent landmark. The Reichstag, an old German parliament building, had stood almost completely disused since it was set on fire in 1933, an event that prompted the Nazis to more or less suspend the country’s constitution.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude spent the best part of the next 20 years petitioning for permission to create a work on the site, a concept not dissimilar from their Pont Neuf project: it would see a huge building freighted with historical significance draped in fabric, symbolically hiding the past and creating a blank slate for modern German identity. The idea proved controversial even after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but in 1994, Christo and Jeanne-Claude finally received permission for this most ambitious project. Once completed the following year, Wrapped Reichstag captured the attention of the world, and became a symbol of the united Germany. It’s no exaggeration to say that this extraordinary achievement marked the rebirth of Berlin as a world city.
Over the River (1992–2017; unrealized)
Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, yet despite her instrumental importance to their joint endeavor, Christo continues to work on ideas they planned together. There are a lot: Christo estimates that in the past 50 years, he has realized 23 works, but failed to secure permission for a further 47 of them. Perhaps the most notable of the latter group is a project to cover six miles of the Arkansas River with reflective fabric, creating a psychedelic tunnel through the rugged valleys of Colorado. Local wildlife conservationists repeatedly blocked the idea, but for a time, it really did look as though his concept might come to fruition.
However, in January 2017, Christo announced that he was pulling out. Having spent a reported $15 million of his own money on the project, he went on the record to state that he could no longer continue in good conscience. The problem, it turned out, was the owner of the proposed site: the American government. “I can’t do a project that benefits this landlord,” Christo told the New York Times. When asked to clarify his statement, he explained, “The decision speaks for itself. My decision process was that, like many others, I never believed that Trump would be elected.” Make of it what you will, but in a half-century of creating art, it is the most direct political statement Christo has ever made.
Cover image: Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Floating Piers, 2016, Toronto Edition (6), The Pont Neuf Wrapped (Hand Signed), ca. 1985. Courtesy of TASCHEN, Fils Fine Arts, and Alpha 137 Gallery.