Christo has never lacked for artistic ambition, and at the age of 84, he is working as hard as ever on one of his most daring projects yet: L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped (Project for Paris, Place de l’Étoile – Charles de Gaulle), an enormous public artwork he first conceived with his partner and collaborator Jeanne-Claude in 1962. The project—scheduled to be unveiled in September after many years of toil— involves wrapping the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in blue polypropylene fabric and red rope, and in Christo’s hands, it’s safe to say the iconic symbol of French history will look as it never has before.
But the Paris project is relatively small-scale in the context of Christo and Jeanne-Claude (the latter of whom died in 2009). Together they have wrapped big governmental buildings and enormous bridges, picturesque bays and sprawling coasts, epic piers and valleys. Each work aspires toward détournement—a concept derived from the 1960s-era Situationist movement in which artists seek to alter understandings of space and its contexts, often as a protest-minded political gesture.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s biggest works—many of them made after years of bureaucratic wrangling and construction, and all of them temporary—are ranked below by the amount of fabric used. (The list starts with the “smallest,” and asterisks denote works that Christo created solo, after Jeanne-Claude’s passing.)
10. Valley Curtain (1970–72)
Amount of fabric used: 200,209 square feet
A quarter-mile-long bright orange wall that bisected a valley in Rifle, Colorado, this project lasted just 28 hours before a gale-force wind forced the artists to dismantle it with a team of construction workers. In that short time, cars could drive beneath it. And the work became one of the defining works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s career. The famed documentary filmmaker duo Albert and David Maysles shot footage of Valley Curtain’s installation and cut it into a short that was nominated for an Academy Award (the year before they made the classic Grey Gardens). Calvin Tomkins, of the New Yorker, called the documentary “by far the finest film I have seen about an artist and his work.”
9. L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped (Project for Paris, Place de l’Étoile – Charles de Gaulle), 1962–ongoing
Amount of fabric (expected to be) used: 269,097 square feet
One of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s longest-gestating works, L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped is slated to be unveiled on September 19 and remain on view through October 4. The project had been a dream one for the duo for decades—they began making photomontages of the wrapped monument as early as 1962. A bureaucratic fracas kept the work from debuting this spring, as had been initially been expected, after the League for the Protection of Birds said that the sculpture could potentially endanger krestel falcons that nest on the Arc de Triomphe. Christo decided to delay the work to figure out how to keep the birds safe.
8. The Pont Neuf Wrapped (1975–85)
Amount of fabric used: 449,931 square feet
Prior to the covering of the Arc de Triomphe, this was Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s most famous work in Paris. The artists covered the famed centuries-old bridge that crosses the River Seine in orangey fabric that Christo said was meant to be the same color as “Paris stone.” In addition to the bridge, surrounding sidewalks and part of the Île de la Cité embankment were also sheathed in fabric. The bridge’s famed street lamps remained lit—from beneath the billowing polyamide.
7. Wrapped Trees (1997–98)
Amount of fabric used: 592,015 square feet
Like many wrappings by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, this one took a few failed attempts before it was actually executed. They first tried to wrap trees at the Saint Louis Art Museum in Missouri, and then along the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Both times, officials denied permission. But finally, the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland said it was interested in realizing Wrapped Trees, and working with a large team that included project managers, fabric producers, tree pruners, climbers, and construction workers, the work finally came into being during the 1990s at the museum and the adjacent Berower Park. As usual for the duo, Christo and Jeanne-Claude funded its production through the sales of preparatory drawings and related photo-based artworks.
6. Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia (1968–69)
Amount of fabric used: 999,967 square feet
Coordinated by Australian arts patron John Kaldor, this project was so big that viewers couldn’t see it all from any one vantage point. Working with a team that included 110 installers and 15 climbers, Christo and Jeanne-Claude covered a one-and-a-half mile stretch of land along the South Pacific Ocean, lining rocky outcroppings with flowing white fabric. The artists always disclosed all kinds of details related to the monetary costs of making their work, and they said that only 11 people who made the project—all of them students who the artists claimed refused to accept wages—were paid.
5. The Gates (1979–05)
Amount of fabric used: 1,067,295 square feet
One of the most memorable pieces of public art ever installed in New York, this work featured 7,503 gates—squares of orange-colored fabric that swayed in the wind and were suspended from arch-like structures—installed throughout Central Park. While the title hinted at something more expressive than the artists typically went for, Christo claimed the structures were in no way symbolic. And The Gates was a bona fide hit—New York City officials estimated that the work brought in $80 million in tourism because of all the people who came to see it.
4/3. TIE! Wrapped Reichstag (1971–95) and The Floating Piers (2014–16)*
Amount of fabric used: 1,076,631 square feet for each
These two works—the first a wrapping of an iconic governmental building in Berlin, the second a dock-like structure installed on top of Italy’s Lake Iseo—used the same exact amount of fabric. And both were also a reflection on the changing nature of their sites: the Reichstag piece, in particular, considered how its underlying building was always in flux, having been burned in 1933 and nearly destroyed altogether during World War II.
2. Running Fence (1972–76)
Amount of fabric used: 2,152,782 square feet
The length of this work, which winded through California’s Sonoma and Marin Counties, was dictated by its site, as Route 101, the closest highway to the coast, is more than 24 miles from the ocean. To traverse that distance, the artists constructed an epic structure that ran across hills and a highway, ultimately making its way down a rocky cliff and into the ocean. The work marked a milestone in that it was the first time an artwork of its scale came with a report on its environmental impact. In 2010, when asked why they issued such a report, Christo said, “It’s common sense.”
1. Surrounded Islands (1980–83)
Amount of fabric used: 6,490,638 square feet
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s biggest work was also their most controversial one. When they unfurled nearly 6.5 million square feet of fabric on Miami’s Biscayne Bay, officials were turned off by the work’s color, which Christo said paid homage to Claude Monet’s paintings of waterlilies. Locals questioned its status as art and whether it was meant as an ironic slap at Miami’s outré tastes, and many attacked the artists for the work’s enormous production and maintenance costs. (One local even named himself “the Count of anti-Christo.”) Nonetheless, the artists waved off the criticisms—and, in a 1984 ARTnews profile, Christo said, “The work develops its own dimension. It is always bigger than my imagination alone.”