Christo, who with his wife and partner, Jeanne-Claude, used sculpture as a means to dramatically shift people’s understanding of iconic structures and sites, has died at 84. According to a statement released by the artist’s office, Christo died on May 31 of natural causes.
“Christo lived his life to the fullest, not only dreaming up what seemed impossible but realizing it,” the statement reads. “Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s artwork brought people together in shared experiences across the globe, and their work lives on in our hearts and memories.”
The news comes as Christo was in the midst of one of his most ambitious projects to date, a project involving plans to wrap Paris’s Arc de Triomphe in 269,097 square feet of fabric. First conceived in 1962 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude and titled L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped (Project for Paris, Place de l’Étoile – Charles de Gaulle), the project is still expected to be executed in September 2021, the artist’s office confirmed in its death notice. (The Arc de Triomphe wrapping was originally expected to take place this year, but it was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.)
With Jeanne-Claude, Christo created some of the most iconic sculptures of the past half-century. Many involved temporarily sheathing well-known buildings and other entities in swaths of fabric, effectively deconstructing and reconstructing the way we think about how those structures function with respect to their surrounding landscapes. Among the things wrapped by the couple were the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris, islands in Biscayne Bay in Miami, and the Reichstag in Berlin.
The wrappings themselves are only one facet of each project, as Christo and Jeanne-Claude considered the bureaucratic wrangling required to realize such works—as well as related documentation including environmental impact reports, drawings, and diagrams—to be part of the works as well. In proposing that a monumental sculpture is more than just a realized object itself, Christo and Jeanne-Claude shifted how public art is made and understood.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s artworks sometimes courted controversy. Their biggest work, the Biscayne Bay wrapping under the title Surrounded Islands (1980–83), involved more than 6.5 million square feet of pink fabric. The work was visually striking and gained national attention as a result. But locals reacted with a mix of ire and confusion. Some raised concerns about the way the sculpture could permanently alter the local ecosystem—one representative for the National Wildlife Rescue Team even gave himself the moniker “the Count of anti-Christo” because he was so opposed to it. Other detractors labeled the artwork frivolous for its cost—an estimated $3.5 million—and claimed that Christo and Jeanne-Claude had offered Miami a gift that its residents didn’t want. Still others claimed it was ugly, or that Christo and Jeanne-Claude were making a mockery of the city’s outré tastes. (Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt recently told ARTnews about growing up with Surrounded Islands in her past.)
Christo, who often remained stoic in the face of mounting criticism, listened carefully to his detractors in Miami—but chose to wave them off, telling ARTnews in 1984, “the work develops its own dimension. It is always bigger than my imagination alone.” He called the project “my Water Lilies,” referring to Claude Monet’s Impressionist paintings, and said it was a “poetical gesture.” After the polypropylene fabric wrapping was disassembled and Biscayne Bay was returned to its prior state, Christo said the work was “still in the mind of the people.”
Such a reference to the deep psychological impact of the wrappings had a basis in history. Christo and Jeanne-Claude began working in Paris during the 1960s, and their early works owe something to Situationism, a movement led by Marxist intellectuals such as Guy Debord that considered how the media shaped the public consciousness. Among the Situationist movement’s key concepts were those of détournement, through which preexisting places and images are appropriated and subverted, and dérive, in which one’s understanding of an urban landscape is disrupted. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s earliest works drew on both concepts—and in the process opened up new possibilities for public art.
Their most important work from that era was Le Rideau de Fer (The Iron Curtain), a 1961–62 sculpture involving the placement of 89 oil barrels that effectively walled off one of the narrowest roads in Paris. The title paid homage to the Berlin Wall, which had been erected less than a year before, and the work was produced around the same time that controversy over the Algerian War was brewing in France.
Le Rideau de Fer—which was so controversial that Christo and Jeanne-Claude were nearly arrested upon its exhibition—was evocative of an increasingly radical line of political thinking among Parisian youth, and its use of barrels that had been produced for major gas companies such as Esso, Shell, and BP hinted at a critique of—and a distaste for—bourgeois attitudes. “This ‘iron curtain’ can be used as a barricade during a period of public work in the street, or to transform the street into a dead end,” Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrote in an application submitted to the local government. “Finally its principle can be extended to a whole area or an entire city.” Like many works by the couple, Le Rideau de Fer was ultimately dismantled; it now exists only in the form of photographs, sketches, and written documentation.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s politics could be hard to discern. Critics and politicians alike found it hard to ascribe a direct meaning to the couple’s 1971–95 work Wrapped Reichstag, which involved the veiling of a building used for political assemblies that was nearly destroyed during World War II. First conceived when Germany was still divided by the Berlin Wall, the work was finally realized in 1995, after politicians had debated whether it was intended to promote some insidious kind of nationalism. “Now that the wall is down some observers are seeing it as a bundling away of the past, others as a chrysalis out of which a new Germany will emerge,” Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times. “The symbolism, in other words, is whatever one makes of it.”
Wrapped Reichstag had been aesthetically mapped out in advance. Special care had been taken to make it look as though certain statues on the building’s edifice were missing; its corners were also rendered more visible through the way the fabric was tied. Even the work’s detractors had to admit that Wrapped Reichstag was visually striking.
The same could be said of just about any other Christo project, and as a result people all over have been drawn to spectacles that must be seen to be believed. Huge crowds made the trek to commune in person with The Gates, a project in New York’s Central Park in 2005. The installation featured 7,503 gates—tall doorway-like structures with billowy panels of saffron-colored fabric hung from them—spread around the park; anyone who witnessed the work is unlikely to have forgotten it.
Christo often spoke about his artworks in terms that seemed to suggest they were functionless. “We make beautiful things, unbelievably useless, totally unnecessary,” he once said. The data suggests otherwise, however. Local officials estimated that The Gates singlehandedly generated $80 million in tourism—a massive and nearly unparalleled sum for a public artwork in New York, a city that has played host to a slew of memorable monumental sculptures over the years.
Christo Vladimirov Javacheff was born on June 13, 1935, in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. (He and Jeanne-Claude were born on the same exact day—which became an integral and oft-repeated part of the couple’s lore.) His early life saw him bouncing around Europe, studying at the National Academy of Art in Sofia from 1953 to 1956, then moving to Prague, then to Vienna, then to Geneva, and finally to Paris, where, in 1958, he met Jeanne-Claude. Not too long after, the couple had a child.
Some of Christo’s earliest works have been considered a part of France’s Nouveau Réalisme movement. Formed by critic Pierre Restany and artist Yves Klein, the movement was intended to discover “new ways of perceiving the real,” as they wrote in a 1960 manifesto signed by its purveyors. (Though Christo showed with the group, he was not one of the manifesto’s signatories.) Those “new ways of perceiving the real” involved bizarre, freewheeling responses to a budding consumer culture taking hold in France at the time. Jacques Villeglé was showing torn advertisements as artworks. Yves Klein was patenting a shade of blue and using it to create monochromes. Daniel Spoerri was exhibiting tables lined with found objects as “tableaux pièges,” or “trap paintings.”
Christo’s contribution to the movement was early wrappings. Looked at today, these sculptures are relatively lo-fi for an artist who would later produce a succession of far more baroque endeavors. They often involved everyday objects—cans, newspapers, bottles—that were covered in fabric and twine. They have a secretive quality that sometimes causes them to seem like presents ready for unwrapping, and their elusiveness would foreshadow the more mysterious sculptures that followed.
The wrappings grew increasingly strange as the ’60s and ’70s progressed. There was a woman covered in see-through material that looked an awful lot like a corpse, and there was a Volkswagen strung up in rope and fabric. There was a wrapped motorcycle too, and a wrapped tree, and even a wrapped portrait of Jeanne-Claude. There were also plans for wrappings that have never been realized—including one around a public Picasso sculpture in New York.
One of the first monumental public wrappings was the 1970–72 work Valley Curtain, which appeared in Rifle, Colorado, for just 28 hours. Featuring 200,000 square feet of fabric that loomed over a highway, the work was destroyed by a gale force wind—but it lives on in the form of an Oscar-winning short documentary by Albert and David Maysles. Documentation such as the film has become key to seeing and understanding Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s no-longer-extant works, and Wolfgang Volz has shot numerous important photographic images of the artists’ works in progress.
What remains of the wrappings exists largely in the form of preparatory works, which Christo sold to fund some of his more expensive projects. A less-often-discussed—though greatly important—aspect of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works are the reports that have been published alongside them, which tend to disclose, in painstaking detail, how much workers were compensated and how funds were appropriated. The artists also made public data about the environmental ramifications of their artworks—a gesture they first undertook with the 1972–76 piece Running Fence, which featured 24 miles of fabric that extended from a California highway to a coastline. In 2010, Christo was asked why the couple issued the environmental report. “It’s common sense,” he said.
Because Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ambitions were so grand, many projects by the artists have yet to be realized. Among them is The Mastaba, a project that calls for 410,000 oil drums to be placed in a pyramid-like form in the desert in Abu Dhabi. The work, first thought up by the artists in 1977, is expected to be one of the world’s biggest public artworks—though it is unclear when, if ever, it will be completed. (A 600-ton barrel piece was unveiled at London’s Serpentine Galleries in 2018.)
Christo continued plugging away in the later part of his life, working tirelessly even after Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 of a brain aneurysm. He seemed to find an echo of his own mortality in the sculptures he produced solo. One was Floating Piers (2014–16), for which visitors to Italy’s Lake Iseo could take a walk across a dock-like structure that was covered in fabric. That piece, he said, would not last forever. “It creates an incredible urgency because it will never take place again,” he said ahead of the piece’s unveiling. “That’s why it’s so exciting.”