Wrapper's Delight: The Legendary Collaboration of Christo and Jeanne-Claude

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On November 18, 2009, one of the most important artistic partnerships of the century ended when Jeanne-Claude, of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, passed away. During the couple’s 45 years of collaboration, they completed 20 gargantuan works of art—masterpieces so enormous they encompassed entire cities. In the United States, they were best known for The Gates, a 2005 project that consisted of nearly 8,000 gates spilling orange fabric through New York City’s Central Park. But their work wasn’t limited to America, and it wasn’t constrained to museums. The quiet, bespectacled Christo and his talkative, red-haired wife fundamentally changed the art world by abandoning the gallery system and undertaking projects that were ridiculously large in scope. The two were so devoted to their work that they never flew on the same plane; they didn’t want to leave a project orphaned in the case of a crash. Together, the pair created some of the most memorable, visually stunning art in history. This is the story of a stateless man, a general’s daughter, and the painstaking effort they poured into constructing their work—and then taking it down.

An Affair to Remember

On the evening of June 13, 1935, Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon and Christo Javacheff were born 1,870 miles apart—she in Casablanca, Morocco, and he in Gabrovo, Bulgaria.

Jeanne-Claude’s mother was a socialite, and her stepfather was a general in the French military. Her early years read like a World War II film noir script; she was a spoiled, neglected debutante shuffling between mansions in North Africa and France. Meanwhile, Jeanne-Claude’s future partner, Christo Javacheff, grew up behind the Iron Curtain. His father was a scientist and his mother was a secretary at an art school. Christo never wanted to be anything but an artist, and his parents’ station in life combined with his natural aptitude helped facilitate his dreams. Christo studied art in Bulgaria, and although he enjoyed the technical training, he loathed the forced propaganda work. In Bulgaria, as in many Soviet-aligned countries, the government regularly dispatched art students to the countryside to beautify the land. Christo was sent to farms along the railway lines to create displays of the latest farm equipment. The goal was to keep up the fac?ade of bucolic happiness for any Westerners who might be touring by rail. And while Christo detested the work, the experience gave him an idea of just how massive the scope and scale of art projects could be.

In 1957, Christo bribed a railway worker to smuggle him into Vienna, Austria. At the age of 22, the young artist had left behind everything he knew in the world. He was alone, a “stateless person.”

In Vienna, Christo spent one semester in art school, then drifted to Geneva and eventually Paris, where he supported himself by washing dishes and painting portraits of socialites. He didn’t mind the dishes, but, to him, the portraits felt like prostitution. At least one good thing came out of those commissions, though; they led him to his future partner. At the time, Jeanne-Claude was living with her family in Paris and leading an empty life of parties and decadence. Her mother hired Christo to paint her portrait. Years later, Jeanne-Claude would say that her life began the day Christo walked into their house. They were both romantically involved with other people at the time, but after a year of friendship, they started an affair.

On August 12, 1959, Jeanne-Claude married her wealthy boyfriend, Philippe Planchon. It’s unclear whether she knew that she was carrying Christo’s child at the time, but soon after the ceremony, she realized she’d made a mistake. Jeanne-Claude left Planchon right after the honeymoon and told Christo about the pregnancy. They decided to pass off the child as Planchon’s in order to obtain child support, and when their son, Cyril, was born in May, he was given Planchon’s name. Christo became the child’s godfather, and he and Jeanne-Claude continued their affair.

Drawing the Curtain

During this period, Christo was moving away from portraiture and developing his artistic style. At first, he experimented with sculpture, cloaking objects in fabric and tying material with elaborate knots. He played with all sorts of objects—spoons, cans, shoes, wheelbarrows, cars, even women. In 1961, Christo produced his first environmental work, Dockside Packages, outside a gallery in Cologne. The 16-foot-tall, 32-foot-wide piece consisted of oil barrels and industrial paper rolls stacked up on the docks and draped in a giant tarp. Curiously, it looked virtually identical to the industrial packages that were normally on the dock, and few people realized the scene was an art installation. The response, or lack of one, pleased Christo greatly.

The following year, Christo returned to the subject of oil barrels for an installation called Iron Curtain, which he created to protest the construction of the Berlin Wall. It consisted of 240 barrels stacked across Rue Visconti, a narrow Parisian street. Once completed, the work made the road impassable. This was the first time the artist had actively manipulated a public landscape—something that would become the hallmark of his work. Iron Curtain was also one of Christo’s first major collaborations with Jeanne-Claude. Her task was simple yet essential, and it presaged the role she would play for decades to come. Jeanne-Claude’s job was to stave off the authorities while Christo constructed his installation. Armed with brazenness, family connections, and a ferocious belief in Christo, Jeanne-Claude helped turn his concept into a reality.

In 1964, Jeanne-Claude, Christo, and their child relocated to New York City. They moved into the legendary Chelsea Hotel, and though virtually penniless, they quickly became staples of Manhattan’s art scene. Because Christo spoke little English, he often stayed in the background, smiling genially as Jeanne-Claude charmed and haggled with gallery owners and collectors. Jeanne-Claude’s interventions on behalf of her husband were pivotal in furthering his work, and from 1964 onwards, they considered themselves equal partners in the creative process. As one friend put it, Christo and Jeanne-Claude had become “an eagle with two heads.”

Monumental Tasks

In the fall of 1969, the pair created their first massive environmental work, Wrapped Coast, which covered a mile of Australian coastline in 1 million square feet of fabric and 35 miles of rope. The project came about by chance after the Australian textile designer John Kaldor invited Christo to give a series of lectures in Sydney. The artist made a counterproposal; instead of giving lectures, he wanted to wrap Australia’s coastline in fabric. Kaldor loved the idea and took it upon himself to find the available shore. Eventually, he found a private beach owned by a hospital that was willing to lend the property to the project. The media fell in love with Wrapped Coast’s beautiful absurdity. From that point on, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s environmental works would only get bigger.

Suddenly, the artistic duo needed engineers, forklift operators, textile workers, and lawyers to help them bring their creations to life. At this, Jeanne-Claude became a masterful manager. When it came time to actually install the projects, she would hire crews of thousands — first to build the artwork, then to maintain it for a few weeks, and finally to remove it and clear the area of any traces of the installation.

Each undertaking was tremendously expensive. Several of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s environmental works cost more than $20 million to build. And yet, they funded all the projects themselves, largely through selling Christo’s smaller pieces. His wrapped objects from the 1960s quickly became collector’s items, and as he planned for future colossal projects, he turned each sketch into its own valuable work of art. For each installation, Christo would obsessively detail his plans. Then, he’d combine photos, maps, and drawings into collages that he’d frame and sell. Collectors and museums gobbled up the works, with some of the pieces selling for upwards of $600,000.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s process for putting together environmental pieces subverted the normal mechanics of capitalism. The couple would create something for free, which made them money, which they used to create some- thing else for free, which made them even more money. But the artists insist that their projects were never a commentary on capitalism and that there was no meaning behind the pieces at all. Christo maintains that his work derives its power from the fact that it’s “absolutely irrational.”

Two Become One

In 1994, the couple announced that they wanted to be known as a single entity, and that all projects they’d created since 1964 should be retroactively labeled as the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The announcement perturbed many in the art world, who objected to Jeanne-Claude being called an artist. After all, her role was more administrative and managerial. In response to the criticism, Christo said, “The drawings are the scheme for the project, after that, we do everything together: Choose the rope, the fabric, the thickness of the fabric, the amount of fabric, the color. We argue, and we think about it. Everybody knows that we’ve worked together for over 30 years. There’s no point in arguing about who does what. The work is all that matters.”

Until Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009, the couple continued to live in the same loft they’d moved into in 1965. They worked all day, every day, on their projects. They nurtured their artwork the way most parents tend to their young, and they promised each other that should one of them die, the other would continue to raise their creations. Christo appears to be staying true to his word. He is currently working on a project he conceived with Jeanne-Claude in 1994 called Over the River. It will consist of a length of silver fabric extending across a 6-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in Colorado. The target date for installation is tentatively scheduled for 2014. And while Christo’s going it alone, there’s no doubt the project will be wrapped in Jeanne-Claude’s spirit.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Get a free issue!

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December 26, 2011 - 5:05am
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