Mountains, museums, bridges and Central Park were just some of what he used to make astonishing and popular art with his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude.
William Grimes – NY Times Art Editor – 31 May 2020
“Christo, the Bulgarian-born conceptual artist who turned to epic-scale environmental works in the late 1960s, stringing a giant curtain across a mountain pass in Colorado, wrapping the Pont Neuf in Paris and the Reichstag in Berlin and zigzagging thousands of saffron-curtained gates throughout Central Park, died on Sunday at his home in New York City. He was 84.
His death was announced on his official Facebook page. No cause was specified.
Christo — he used only his first name — was an artistic Pied Piper. His grand projects, often decades in the making and all of them temporary, required the cooperation of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of landowners, government officials, judges, environmental groups, local residents, engineers and workers, many of whom had little interest in art and a deep reluctance to see their lives and their surroundings disrupted by an eccentric visionary speaking in only semi-comprehensible English.
Again and again, Christo prevailed, through persistence, charm and a childlike belief that eventually everyone would see things the way he did.
At his side, throughout, was his wife, Jeanne-Claude, who, like her husband, used only her first name. In the mid-1990s she began sharing equal billing with him on all their projects, formalizing what the couple insisted had been their practice all along. She died in 2009.
“The Gates,” Christo’s Central Park project, typified his approach. Like nearly all his projects, it began with a drawing, executed in 1979. Then came the seemingly eternal round of lobbying public officials, filing forms, waiting for environmental impact studies, speaking at hearings, rallying support. All of this, Christo insisted, was part of the art work.
“For me esthetics is everything involved in the process — the workers, the politics, the negotiations, the construction difficulty, the dealings with hundreds of people,” he told The New York Times in 1972. “The whole process becomes an esthetic — that’s what I’m interested in, discovering the process. I put myself in dialogue with other people.”
When New York’s parks commissioner at the time, Gordon J. Davis, rejected “The Gates” in 1981, setting forth his reasons in a book-length document, Christo simply incorporated the rebuff into the project. “I find it very inspiring in a way that is like abstract poetry,” he told the College Art Association. “He adds a dimension to the work, no matter what he thinks.”
Given the go-ahead by the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, “The Gates” was finally installed in February 2005. For two weeks, thousands of strollers wandering 23 miles of the park’s pathways passed underneath 7,503 steel frames supporting free-hanging panels of saffron-colored fabric. It was a stunning success.
“In the winter light, the bright fabric seemed to warm the fields, flickering like a flame against the barren trees,” Michael Kimmelman wrote in The Times. “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.”
Christo Vladimirov Javacheff was born on June 13, 1935, into a prominent family in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. He took painting and drawing lessons as a child and went on to study at the Fine Arts Academy in Sofia, the capital, while the country was under Communist control.
One of his propaganda assignments was to advise farmers along the route of the Orient Express how to arrange their haystacks and machinery in a way that suggested bustling activity and prosperity. He later said that this experience had taught him how to work in open spaces and deal with people outside academia.
He was studying and working at the avant-garde Burian Theater in Prague in 1956 when Soviet forces crushed the Hungarian uprising. Seeing no future in Eastern Europe, he escaped to Vienna, hiding in a freight car loaded with medical supplies. After studying for a semester at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, he moved to Geneva and then, in 1958, to Paris, supporting himself by painting portraits. There he met Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, his future wife, while painting a portrait of her mother.
In his Paris studio Christo began collecting bottles, paint cans, oil drums and wooden crates, some of which he wrapped in resin-soaked canvas, tied with twine and coated with black or gray automobile paint in an evolving work he called “Inventory.”
In 1961, as part of his first solo show, he stacked oil drums and a wrapped Renault car inside the Galerie Haro Lauhus in Cologne. Nearby, on the docks, he arranged mysterious wrapped objects that he called “Dockside Packages.” Some critics saw in this early work an incisive critique of packaging and advertising in late-capitalist society.
The next year Christo staged a brilliant coup de theatre, a work he called “Iron Curtain: Wall of Oil Barrels.” As part of a solo show at the Galerie J in Paris, he blocked off the narrow Rue Visconti for several hours with 204 stacked oil barrels, while his wife kept the police away through a series of diversionary tactics.
After two of his wrapped “Packages” from 1961 were included in the “New Realists” show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan in 1962 — one of the earliest exhibitions of Pop Art and the related French movement known as Nouveau Réalisme — he and Jeanne-Claude turned their attention to the United States.
Encouraged by promised exhibitions at the Leo Castelli Gallery in Manhattan, Christo, though he spoke almost no English, moved to New York in 1964 with his wife and their young son, Cyril. That year, the Castelli Gallery exhibited his “Store Front,” two display windows flanking a shop door surmounted by a wrapped air-conditioner.
For several years Christo had wanted to wrap not just packages but entire buildings. He drew up plans to sheath five different art museums. One of them, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, agreed to be wrapped in 1969. Later that year, on an even larger scale, he wrapped a million square feet of coastline near Sydney, Australia, in erosion-control fabric.
Several projects on a grand scale followed in the 1970s. For “Valley Curtain” he strung orange nylon fabric along steel cables over a narrow pass in Rifle, Colo.; a large semicircular opening allowed cars on the state highway below to pass through.
Fierce winds ripped the curtain to shreds two days later, a setback that Christo shrugged off. “I as an artist have done what I set out to do,” he said. “That the curtain no longer exists only makes it more interesting.”
Then came “Running Fence,” a series of white nylon fabric panels that snaked their way over ranchland in Sonoma and Marin counties in Northern California and crossed Highway 101 on their way to the ocean in Bodega Bay.
For “Valley Curtain,” Christo and his lawyer devised the system that made all of his subsequent works possible. 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 and small models to collectors and museums; Christo never accepted grants or public money. When the art work was taken down, the corporation dissolved itself, having earned zero profit.
He began to achieve star status with several urban projects in the 1980s and ’90s. In “Surrounded Islands,” he dressed 11 tiny islands in Biscayne Bay in South Florida in flamingo-pink polypropylene skirts, which made them look like floating tropical flowers.
Then came the wrapping of the Pont Neuf in Paris, stalled for decades by the French bureaucracy and the political rivalry between Jacques Chirac, Paris’s mayor, and François Mitterrand, the president of France. It was a popular triumph when finally completed in 1985.
The honey-colored fabric — 440,000 square feet of woven polyamide covering the bridge and its 44 lamps — blended harmoniously with Paris’s urban palette, and the bridge’s artful draping was deemed worthy of a couture house.
“Whether it was ‘art,’ they neither knew nor cared,” John Russell wrote in The Times of the public’s love affair with the wrapped bridge. “If it was fundamentally vacuous, nobody complained. It was something to look at, something to walk on and something to think about.”
Even more difficult, politically, was Christo’s plan to wrap the Reichstag in Berlin. The first drawing was made in 1971. For decades thereafter he encountered nothing but resistance from West German officials. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, momentum shifted his way, and in 1995 the work was completed.
In between the Pont Neuf and Reichstag Projects, Christo and Jeanne-Claude simultaneously 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.
“The Umbrellas, Japan-U.S.A.” came to grief when one of the 485-pound umbrellas in California came unmoored in high winds and killed a woman and injured several other people. The two artists ordered the umbrellas in both countries to be taken down immediately. As a Japanese crane operator prepared to remove one of the umbrellas, his crane made contact with a power line, electrocuting him.
For “The Floating Piers,” completed in Northern Italy in 2016 — and the culmination of his dream, he would say, “to walk on water” — he used nearly two miles of saffron fabric to create a pedestrian walkway connecting two small islands in Lake Iseo to the mainland. It was the subject of the documentary “Walking on Water,” released last year.
At his death, Christo had one major project forthcoming: wrapping the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. First conceived in 1962, the project was to wrap the landmark in 25,000 square meters of silvery blue polypropylene fabric and 7,000 meters of red rope. The project will go ahead 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.
Other unrealized projects include “Over the River,” a sequence of silver panels to be hung at intervals above a 40-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in Colorado. Another, a mastaba, or flat-topped pyramid, made of more than 300,000 oil drums, was to be built in Abu Dhabi as Christo’s only permanent large-scale work. (He built a smaller version of it in Hyde Park in London in 2018).
Christo is survived by his son, Cyril Christo, a wildlife photographer; his brothers Anani and Stefan, who spell their last name Yavachev; a grandson; and two nephews, Vladimir Yavachev and Jonathan Henery, both of whom helped him with his work.
The public loved Christo. Art critics delivered mixed reviews. To some, he seemed more showman, or even charlatan, than artist. “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.”
Both camps saw him as an unclassifiable figure.
The artist Saul Steinberg, a good friend, said of Christo, “He not only invented himself, he invented his art and, even more amazing, he invented his public.”