Christo and Jeanne-Claude, “Surrounded Islands,” Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83. (Photo: Wolfgang Volz, ©1983  Christo)

The awe-inspiring art journey of Christo (b. Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, June 13, 1935, Bulgaria; d. May 31, 2020, New York City) began amid social-realism aesthetics of a repressive authoritarian society and ended at the pinnacle of the international avant-garde. Highly intellectual and prolific to the end, his oeuvre defies one-note pop-cultural reputation as preeminent “wrap artist” — one of his earliest mediums were sculpture compositions made from colored barrels, such as the one, mastaba-shaped, that was designed, but never finished for a proposed site in the United Arab Emirates. In fact, this sobriquet has accrued an endearing and referential mien across many aesthetic constituencies, as his oeuvre of giant site-specific installations has become historicized and ubiquitous globally.  

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, “Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet,” Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, 1968-69. (Photo: Shunk-Kender, © 1969 Christo)

Among Christo’s first widely-known works are wall-hung “empaquetages” (“packages”) from the late 1950s-early 1960s, sometimes affiliated with French “Nouveau realisme.” Critics at the timed turned to Man Ray’s Dada sculpture, “L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse” (1920), a mysterious, covered, ready-made, suggestive precedent. Soon after, he was creating large-scale public works, beginning with barrel blockades in Paris, 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, or wrapped over buildings and landscapes, sometimes incorporating added structural elements.

Christo photographed by Jill Krementz on April 13th, 1978 with his good friend, the illustrator Saul Steinberg (in tuxedo), at The Whitney Museum. Christo’s wife, Jeanne-Claude, appears to his left. Sternberg once said about Christo, “He not only invented himself, he invented his art and, even more amazing, he invented his public.” (Photo: Jill Krementz)

Quintessential examples include “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. Bright pink fabric was laid ad unfurled around small islands dotting the ultramarine Biscayne Bay in “Surrounded Islands” (1983, Miami) to resemble, from aerial views, a Monet waterlily painting for the gods. As well as innovative forms and spatial conception, there are political dimensions encoded in most of their works based on place, climactic in the uniform opaque sheathing of “Wrapped Reichstag” (1995, Berlin).  

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Valley Curtain, Rifle, Colorado, 1970-72. (Photo: Shunk-Kender, © 1972 Christo)

As one can easily imagine, site-specific administrative work, exploration, and environmental, safety, and access-related logistics —all part of the art, as Christo often explained, 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 the wide-spread celebration. Composed of rows of vertical poles of varied heights joined lintel-like, all in a monochrome saffron hue — especially striking against the snow — “The Gates” resembled a procession of Shinto shrines, entirely reshaping that densely shared, well-trodden natural space in Manhattan.  

At this critical moment of world refugee crises, Christo’s escape from brutal Communist regimes in Bulgaria and then Czechoslovakia is sobering to recall. From Prague, he made it to Vienna as a 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 typical for Conceptual artists), but exhibited temporarily and de-assembled, with salvaged materials reused or redistributed.   

A multiplicity of meanings about what art might be in the general and specific arose from his unique oeuvre in a monumental way sure to remain intriguing and influential in perpetuity.