Christo Found Beauty in Realizing the Impossible

Christo and Jeanne-Claude looking for a possible site for The Mastaba for the United Arab Emirates in February 1982
Christo and Jeanne-Claude looking for a possible site for <i>The Mastaba</i> for the United Arab Emirates in February 1982Wolfgang Volz

It takes a truly unique eye to see beauty in bureaucracy, to look at a snarl of planning regulations and NIMBYism and red tape and to convert it, through sheer imaginative alchemy, into art itself. And yet that quality is exactly what defined the work of Christo, who died on Sunday at the age of 84, and his partner, Jeanne-Claude, over the course of a 60-year career. “For me, the excitement begins when I leave the studio,” Christo says in Christo’s Valley Curtain, a 1974 documentary by the Maysles Brothers that captured the artists’ temporary installation of a 1,300-foot orange drape over a valley in the Rocky Mountains. The “real-life experience” of creation, he explains, the “engineering problems, dealing with construction workers, the blueprints, permission from governments … all of these things give me what I can never imagine.” Like no other artist, Christo saw the obstacles in his way as part of his life’s work, vital elements that affirmed the significance of what he managed to achieve.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009, also redefined what—and who—art is supposed to be for. Their signature works couldn’t be commodified because they existed for only weeks or months at a time, free for anyone to behold and funded by the artists themselves. They were, in Christo’s own words, “absolutely irrational, with no justification to exist.” Whimsical and intrinsically useless, the immense installations—which included wrapping the Berlin Reichstag in 1.1 million square feet of polypropylene fabric in 1995 and erecting more than 7,500 saffron-colored cloth gates in Central Park in 2005—served as temporary monuments to beauty, and to the triumph of vision.

Demonstrating his wrap-it art in 1963, Christo applies a polythene sheet to an ancient sculpture in Rome. With the plastic sheet and some string, Christo explains, "The sculpture takes on the loving form of mystery." (Bettmann / Getty)

Christo’s philosophy that his art should have no purpose was in part a rejection of his training. Born in Bulgaria in 1935 to an activist and the manager of a fabric factory, he attended the Sofia Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1950s, when the country was under Soviet rule and students were expected to produce propaganda. As a student, Christo was sent to help farmers arrange their fields to appear well tended to any Western visitors passing through on the Orient Express. The experience, he said in 2005, crystallized his determination to create freely, but also gave him an early sense of what might be possible working in open spaces. In 1956, he stowed away on a train to Vienna, deserting his military service and seeking asylum as a stateless person. He later moved to Paris on a French visa and met Jeanne-Claude when he was commissioned to paint a portrait of her mother. Their partnership, which lasted more than five decades, was spiritual and practical—when they traveled internationally, they reportedly flew on separate planes so one could continue to finish the pair’s work in the event of a crash.

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Starting in the early 1960s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude explored ways to transform the feel and the meaning of objects and spaces. Christo described their works as “gentle disturbances” that rejected political or financial constraints. The couple’s shared ability to sweet-talk naysayers became a crucial part of their process. In 1962, when they constructed a blockade out of oil barrels on Paris’s Rue Visconti, Jeanne-Claude argued forcefully with policemen on the scene until they agreed to let the work stay up for a few more hours. For the 1976 installation of Running Fence, a 25-mile gate of white nylon that ran through private land in California, the couple had to persuade skeptical ranchers to let the artists temporarily co-opt their land for a project that was difficult to explain. After one complained to Jeanne-Claude that the work had no purpose, she replied that the purpose was simply beauty itself, and pointed to the flowers he’d planted in his front stoop instead of more useful vegetables. The pair were so successful at defending and self-funding their work (which they paid for by selling sketches and models of desired projects) that the Harvard Business Review published a book about them titled The Art of the Entrepreneur.

Left: Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Ibaraki, Japan, in 1988 (Wolfgang Volz / laif / Redux). Right: Christo and others dragging yards of plastic to be used in the construction of his balloon sculpture entitled 5600 Cubicmeter Package (Carlo Bavagnoli / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty)

For Christo, the process of negotiating his way to an eventual win—no matter how long it took or how many times he was initially rejected—became its own affirmation of artistic freedom. And the same process of bureaucratic delay changed the context of the works in ways he found irresistible. A project to wrap the Reichstag took 24 years, three official refusals, and the fall of communism before it was completed in 1995. Although Christo rejected political readings of his work, covering the German parliament building in chalk-colored fabric and rope seemed to some to symbolize a blank slate for the country after the fall of the Berlin Wall, rather than the decades-long stifling of a city by a foreign power. A plan to wrap the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, initially scheduled for this year, was twice delayed, once because of the coronavirus pandemic and once to protect kestrel falcons who nest on the structure in the springtime. (Throughout their careers, Christo and Jeanne-Claude tried to prioritize sustainability, commissioning environmental-impact reports for projects in development and making sure that components could be recycled and reused after works were dismantled.)

Left: Surrounded Islands in Biscayne Bay, Florida. Right: Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin (Wolfgang Volz)

The transient nature of the works Christo and Jeanne-Claude made also underscored the importance of process to them. Projects that might be in inception for several decades and cost tens of millions of dollars would be installed for just a couple of weeks, long enough for hundreds of thousands of people to witness the transformation of their shared landscape, but fleeting enough to convey a distinctly human vulnerability. “Our works are temporary in order to endow the works of art with a feeling of urgency to be seen, and the love and tenderness brought by the fact that they will not last,” the artists explained in a brochure for The Gates in 2005. That installation in New York City was championed by Michael Bloomberg, and heavily mocked by comedians and commentators at the time, who saw it as an unsightly boondoggle in Manhattan’s most visible public space. And yet the work feels like an astonishing feat in retrospect: a huge, ephemeral, self-funded construction in one of the most expensive and bureaucratically knotty cities in the world, where art and architecture tend to be inextricably entwined with commerce and power. “The reason we don’t like the projects to stay is no one can charge for tickets, nobody can buy this project,” Christo said in a lecture in 2016. “It is freedom. Freedom is the enemy of possession, and possession is permanence.”

Left: Wrapped Trees in Fondation Beyeler and Berower Park in Riehen, Switzerland (Wolfgang Volz / laif / Redux). Right: The Floating Piers in Lake Iseo, Italy (Wolfgang Volz)

Christo and Jeanne-Claude weren’t always successful in pushing their work to completion. Over 50 years, Christo told an interviewer in 2014, they realized 22 projects but failed to get permission for 37 more. Some they eventually abandoned; others, they kept fighting for, shifting to new locations in search of a more favorable reception. (2016’s Floating Piers, in which 200,000 bright-yellow polyethylene cubes arranged in Italy’s Lake Iseo allowed spectators to briefly walk on water, was initially denied as a project in Argentina and Japan.) Over the River, a project that was designed to suspend almost six miles of fabric over the Arkansas River in Colorado, was finally canceled in 2017, after 20 years and almost $15 million in expenditures. The reason Christo cited at the time, unusually, was that the government overseeing the federal land had changed. Like many artists, he didn’t believe Donald Trump would be elected president, he told The New York Times then. “I can’t do a project that benefits this landlord.”

Still, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s list of failures is as much a part of their body of work as the art they managed to physically create. The point of their vision wasn’t to make things that could stand grandly outside of museums or in the marble atria of office buildings; it was to prove instead that colossal, difficult, complicated schemes could be realized for no other reason than to make the world more beautiful. The amount of time that it takes to achieve the finished product—and how much work and investment is required—is inevitably forgotten when you get to see for a moment the sheer magnitude of what’s possible.

Wolfgang Volz