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.
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.