Christo… larger than life

[04/06/2020]

The immense Bulgarian-American artist CHRISTO left us on May 31. Christo Vladimirov Javacheff was born in Gabrovo, an industrial city from which he apparently escaped, hidden in a freight train, in 1957. Once in Paris, he met the woman who would become his companion and accomplice for the rest of his life, Jeanne Claude, born the same day as him, May 13, 1935. He survived by selling portraits but created his first ‘wrapping’ work under the influence of the avant-garde New Realists who, as the art critic Pierre Restany so aptly described, were concerned with a “poetic recycling of urban, industrial and advertising reality”. Christo decided to ‘recycle’ and wrap various objects (Wrapped Pair of Women’s Shoes in a Frame) and various painted portraits (Wrapped portrait of Jane Mansfield) and created his first in situ installation, blocking the rue Visconti with oil barrels (Wall of Oil Barrels – The Iron Curtain, Paris, 1962). The ‘operation’ was of course illegal, but it set the tone for most of the major projects that they later executed. He was just 30 at the time and it was 1964, the year he and Jeanne-Claude left for New York… where their projects acquired a very different scale.

IMG-5457 Christo – ©thierry Ehrmann – Courtesy du Musée de L’Organe / La Demeure du Chaos

Grandiose projects…

In the following decades, Christo and Jeanne-Claude (who died in 2009) completed a number of monumental projects requiring years of hard work. In addition to the artistic and technical preparation of the installations, they demonstrated extraordinary tenacity in negotiating and obtaining the necessary permissions for their projects, which included convincing the public authorities, but also the general public. Because they involved a transgression of the existing, their ephemeral works were just as fascinating in the debates they triggered as in their outcomes and their recorded memories.

It took the couple four years to create a 400 meter saffron curtain in Colorado (Valley Curtain) that was exhibited for two days in 1972; a decade to wrap the Pont Neuf in Paris (1985) which employed a dozen companies, a dozen engineers and hundreds of workers; 24 years and three refusals to wrap the Reichstag Berlin (in 1995); more than 40 years old for the project of their only permanent work, the Mastaba of Abu Dhabi in the UAE, that was conceived to be “higher than the pyramid of Cheops at 150 meters tall.

… self-financed

The essence of this poetic and ephemeral work: « no point » in the words of Christo. He is there « for beauty, love of art and nothing else. By choosing to cover to reveal, by transforming the environment with fabric, the artistic duo has created experiences, works made freely available to viewers that « nobody can buy (…) nobody can own, nobody can market ”.

However, it was necessary to finance these free but titanic installations … Without subsidy or sponsorship, Christo and Jeanne-Claude financed all their projects by the direct sale of works: preparatory sketches, collages, drawings, prints, models and books. Sometimes, the pieces of fabric that packaged and transformed a site were themselves resold once the work was dismantled.

Studies and works derived from major projects regularly fuel auctions, mainly in Europe and the United States (20% of lots sold since 2010). Its best auction was established in 2014 at $ 600,000, three times the estimated increase for a historic packaging in 1961 (Christie’s Paris, 02/12/2014). At the time of this Wrapped object, Christo has not yet left Paris.

In Paris, where it all started, a large retrospective will dedicate the famous couple to the Center Pompidou from July 1. It was to be combined with Christo’s last major project, the packaging of the Arc de triomphe in Paris, postponed for a year for the same health reasons linked to the coronavirus. Sophie Duplaix, chief curator of contemporary collections at the National Museum of Modern Art and curator of the exhibition at the Center Pompidou explains that « it is a project he cherished since the early sixties, when he settled in Paris: he had a studio in the 17th arrondissement where he saw the Arc de Triomphe, which was a bit of a monument to him. Without Christo as project owner, it is not certain that the packaging of this Arc de Triomphe could be successful … but its completion would be a great tribute.

 

Examples of tenders relating to these projects:

Valley Curtain (Project for Colorado) (1972)

The Pont Neuf, Wrapped (Project for Paris) (1985)

Wrapped Reichstag (Project for Berlin), 1979