We wish to create works of art, works of joy and of beauty. As with every true work of art, it has absolutely no purpose whatsoever: it is not a message, it is not a symbol, it is only a work of art. And like every true artist, we create those works of art for us and our collaborators.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were a collaborative artist duo famous for their monumental environmental installations. They are best known for wrapping landmark buildings and natural elements in fabrics as well as creating temporary structures from colourful oil barrels. Their works were unprecedented in scale and defied categorisation, blending art, architecture, and sculpture.
Despite the repeated efforts of critics to ascribe specific meaning to their work, the artists always insisted that their pieces are simply about experiencing the artwork in the moment and in the context of its environment.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were born on the exact same day: June 13, 1935 - Christo in Gabrovo, Bulgaria and Jeanne-Claude in Casablanca in Morocco. Christo studied at the National Academy of Art in Sofia, while Jeanne-Claude graduated with a degree in Latin and philosophy from the University of Tunis. At the age of 21, Christo decided to flee the Stalinist regime in his home country and reached Paris. There, he met Jeanne-Claude in 1958 when he was commissioned to paint her mother’s portrait.
By 1961, the two had formed both a romantic and an artistic union. Their first joint show, in Cologne, showcased the three types of artworks for which they would become famous: wrapped items, oil barrels, and temporary large-scale works.
Together, they would go on to imagine a wealth of projects for which Christo would create the sketches and preparatory works that were later sold to fund the installations. Determined to retain complete artistic freedom, the couple refused grants, scholarships, donations or public money. They also insisted on paying their assistants, who were hired to do the work of mounting and wrapping the installations, above minimum wages. Their dedication to their art was so strong that they even flew in separate planes so that, in case one of them crashed, the other could continue their work.
Their artworks were typically large, visually impressive, and controversial, often taking years and sometimes decades of careful preparation — including technical solutions, political negotiation, permitting and environmental approval, hearings and public persuasion. The two originally worked under the name “Christo” to simplify their brand and avoid the prejudices against female artists, but later retroactively credited their large-scale outdoor works to both “Christo and Jeanne-Claude”. Unfortunately, this is often still forgotten.
In 1964, the couple relocated to New York City. Here, Christo began to make his Store Fronts: wooden facades made to resemble shop windows. There they also wrapped their first big public building in 1969, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. The project was heavily criticized by the public and ordered to be undone by the fire department, but fortunately this went unenforced.
In October of 1969, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 110 volunteers and 15 professional mountain climbers took 10 weeks to wrap the coast of Sydney’s Little Bay in 92,900 square metres of erosion-control fabric. The piece was called ‘Wrapped Coast’ and it was the first artwork they realized in collaboration with Australian collector John Kaldor for the ‘Kaldor Public Art Projects’.
Within a year of Wrapped Coast, they began work on Valley Curtain: a curtain of orange fabric to be hung across the mountainous Colorado State Highway 325. For 28 months Christo and Jeanne-Claude worked with designers, builders, and students to create the partition of fabric to be hung between two mountains. It was 381 metres long and suspended at a height of 111 metres.
Following a failed attempt to mount the curtain in late 1971, a new engineer and builder-contractor managed to raise the fabric in August 1972. The work only stood for 28 hours before the wind once again destroyed it. This artwork was their most expensive to date and the first one to involve professional construction workers. It was captured in a documentary by David and Albert Maysles: ‘Christo’s Valley Curtain’ which was nominated for Best Documentary Short at the 1974 Academy Awards.
In 1972, Christo and Jeanne-Claude began preparations for Running Fence: a 39.4 kilometers (24.5-mile) long fence of white nylon, supported by steel posts and cables, running through the Californian landscape and into the ocean. The art project consisted of 42 months of collaborative efforts, 18 public hearings, three sessions at the Superior Courts of California and a 450-page Environmental Impact Report. In exchange for temporary use of ranch land, the artists agreed to offer payment and the use of the deconstructed building materials. They began construction in April 1976 and the project culminated in a two-week display in September of that same year.
Perhaps one of the pair’s most visually striking pieces was ‘Surrounded Islands’ for which eleven islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay were surrounded with 603,870 m2 (6,499,800 sq ft) of floating pink polypropylene fabric, covering the surface of the water and extending out from each island into the bay. Before starting the project, Christo and Jeanne Claude had reviewed the engineering and environmental impact for three years. They learned about the bay’s protected wildlife, scoped logistics for anchoring the fabric to the islands, and experimented with floating fabrics.
The project was completed on May 7, 1983 and could be admired for two weeks during which 120 people in inflatable boats monitored the work. After the project was dismantled, the artists had not only restored the environment to its original condition, but additionally cleaned 40 tons of waste that had washed up on the islands.
Continuing their practice of transforming sculptural dimensions into works of art, the couple wrapped the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, in August 1985. The golden fabric took on the original shape of the Pont Neuf, but emphasized its many details and overall proportions.
After 24 years of governmental lobbying across six Bundestag presidents, Christo and Jeanne-Claude carried out on of their most monumental projects: they wrapped the Berlin Reichstag building. The ‘Wrapped Reichstag’ was draped in 100,000 square meters of silver fabric, fastened and shaped with blue rope, creating a sumptuous flow of vertical folds highlighting the features and proportions of the imposing structure. This veiling of the traditional seat of German national authority and the centre of some painful memories because of its association with the rise of the Nazi party became symbolic of a unified Germany. The Reichstag remained wrapped for 14 days and all materials were recycled. Its ‘unwrapping’ was viewed as an act of national renewal. The Guardian posthumously described this work as their “most spectacular achievement”.
"'We want to create works of art of joy and beauty, which we will
build because we believe it will be beautiful.'"
— Jeanne Claude
In January 2005 work began on the installation of ‘The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979–2005’. The title of the piece refers to the time that passed from their initial proposal until they actually got the permission of the new mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. A total of 7,503 gates made of saffron-colored fabric were placed on walkways in Central Park. The people of New York continued to use the park as usual and could walk through The Gates, with the saffron colored fabric forming a golden ceiling over their heads. When seen from the buildings surrounding Central Park, The Gates was like a golden river highlighting the shape of the meandering footpaths.
For this piece, the mayor presented them with the Doris C. Freedman Award for public art. The project had cost an estimated US$21 million, which the artists recouped by selling the project’s documentation.
Another especially interactive project was ‘The Floating Piers’, a series of walkways installed at Lake Iseo near Brescia, Italy. From June 18 to July 3, 2016, visitors were able to walk just above the surface of the water from the village of Sulzano on the mainland to the islands of Monte Isola and San Paolo. The floating walkways were made of around 200,000 polyethene cubes covered with 70,000 m2 (750,000 sq ft) of shimmering yellow fabric. The fabric continued along 2.5 kilometers of pedestrian streets in Sulzano and Peschiera Maraglio.
“Those who experienced
The Floating Piers felt like they were walking on water – or perhaps the back
of a whale. The light and
water transformed the bright yellow fabric to shades of red and gold throughout
the sixteen days.”
The Floating Piers was first conceived by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1970. It was Christo’s first large-scale project since Jeanne-Claude had passed away in 2009.
In 2018 Christo realized a floating installation of a very different character: the London Mastaba. This temporary installation was exhibited from June to September 2018 on the Serpentine lake in London. It consisted of 7,506 oil barrels, in the shape of a mastaba. The artist and his late wife had long been fascinated by this trapezoid form that was found in the architecture of benches in Mesopotamian era and in the tombs of ancient Egyptian kings.
The artwork sat on a floating platform of high-density polyethene, held in place by 32 anchors. It was 20 m (66 ft) in height and weighed 600 tonnes. The vertical ends were painted in a mosaic of red, blue and mauve, whilst the sloping sides consisted of red barrels with bands of white. After its realisation, the reflection of the colorful barrels in the water of the lake became an integral and constantly changing part of the project, creating an almost impressionist effect on the lake’s surface.
Another Mastaba of over 400,000 oil barrels is intended to be built at Al Gharbia, 160 km (100 mi) from the city Abu Dhabi.
In continuation of their series of monumental “wrapping” projects, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris is to be wrapped in 30.000 square meters of recyclable polypropylene fabric in silvery blue, and 7000 meters of red rope. Originally scheduled for autumn of 2020, the project was postponed to October 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic in France and its impact on the arts and cultural sector worldwide. Following Christo’s death in May 2020, at 84 years of age, his office stated that the project will nevertheless be completed.
I am an artist, and I have to have courage ... Do you know that I don't have any artworks that exist? They all go away when they're finished. Only the preparatory drawings, and collages are left, giving my works an almost legendary character. I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain.