It’s a wrap: R.I.P. Christo

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Detail of “Reichstag Wrapped” (Berlin, 1995).  Photo: Oscar Wagenmans, 2019; Wikipedia Creative Commons / ShareAlike 4.0 International]

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, artistically speaking, 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”) from the late 1950s-early 1960s, associated with the loose “Nouveau realisme” movement, portended what was to come. Critics have turned to Man Ray’s Dada sculpture, “L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse” (1920), a mysterious, covered ready-made, as a suggestive precedent.  Within a decade he had begun creating his 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 codes involved with realizing such projects normally necessitated long gestation periods from the drawing board to project incarnation.  “The Gates” (2005, Central Park, New York) took over two decades to see the light.  Ultimately, it became a bond and point of pride for us locals who followed its newsworthy genesis from early controversies to celebratory event. 

It is sobering to recall, at this critical moment of world refugee crises, Christo’s WWII-era escape from brutal Communist and Nazi regimes in Bulgaria and then Czechoslovakia.  From Prague he made it to Vienna as a railcar 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 forms and contexts.  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 life-work 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.

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