The death of the amazing Christo sent me back to the musing mode and keyboard — there’s so much to say . . .
At this scariest of points in baby-boomers’s lives, we’re partly reflecting on the gradual loss of artists we grew up with, who have excited and guided us–the latest, for many, Christo (b. Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, June 13, 1935, Bulgaria; d. May 31, 2020, New York City). His art journey began within the propagandistic parameters of a repressive Communist society and ended at the pinnacle of the international avant-garde. No one familiar with his oeuvre would dismiss it with his pop-cultural reputation as preeminent “wrap artist”–at the same time, not that far off–and through the decades, an endearing and referential sobriquet across many aesthetic constituencies.
Among his earliest widely known works, wall objects he called “empaquetages” (“packages”; late 1950s-early 1960s) were associated with the loose “Nouveau realisme” movement and portended what was to come. Critics have turned to Man Ray’s Dada sculpture, “L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse” (1920), a mysterious blanket-covered ready-made, as a suggestive precedent. Within a decade he had begun creating the quintessential environmental works for which he became famous, in collaboration with Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon aka Jeanne-Claude (born the same day as Christo; d. 2009). Most of their work features miles of industrial-strength fabric swathed, bunted, and/or wrapped with roping over buildings and landscapes, sometimes incorporating added structural elements. Google “Wrapped Coast,” (1969, Sidney, Australia), in which fabric hugged and billowed from seaside cliffs, and “Valley Curtain” (1970; Rocky Mountains, Colorado), in which a seamed, continuous length of cloth is hung on cables above an expanse of remote terrain. One of my favorites, “Surrounded Islands” (1983, Biscayne Bay, Miami) resembled, from aerial views, a Monet waterlily painting for the gods. As well as innovative forms and spatial conceptions, there are political dimensions encoded in most of their works based on place, perhaps climactic “Wrapped Reichstag” (1995, Berlin).
As can be imagined, administrative work related to the logistics and legal codes involved with realizing such projects normally necessitated long gestation periods from the drawing board to 3-D fruition. “The Gates” (2005, Central Park, New York) took over two decades of negotiating and planning to become, ultimately, a shared point of pride for us locals who followed its newsworthy genesis from early controversies to celebration.
It is sobering to recall, at this critical moment of the world refugee crises, Christo’s WWII-era escape from brutal regimes in Bulgaria and then Czechoslovakia. From Prague he made it to Vienna as a rail car stowaway; and on to Geneva and Paris—technically a stateless person for over a decade before receiving U.S. citizenship in 1973. At the same time, he maintained certain Socialist, even Communist skepticism about the “culture industry” in capitalist society—namely, the connections between patronage and art content and context. He refused economic support for the public works so that they could not be ideologically distorted or piggy-backed upon by sponsors. Instead his site work relied on revenue from related conventionally portable work such as sketches, plans, and dramatic photographs. The installations were not for sale (via diagrams and permissions as is common for Conceptual artists), but exhibited temporarily and de-assembled, with salvaged materials reused or redistributed.
Christo’s oeuvre explored and offered a multiplicity of meanings about what art might be in the general and specific. Look for a proliferation of forthcoming material over the next few decades about it all–most of it sure to be fascinating.