Christo, the conceptual artist, known for his massive site-specific art installations, died on Sunday, March 31, at his home in New York City. According to a statement posted on his official Facebook page, he passed away from natural causes. He was 84.
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Along with his wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude (who died in 2009), Christo, over the course of his many decades as an artist, gained acclaim and popularity for projects that often involved wrapping particular landmarks and landmasses in different types of fabrics to create distinctive environmental artworks. Among his and Jeanne-Claude’s most famous works in that vein were the wrappings of Paris’s Pont Neuf bridge in 1985 and Berlin’s Reichstag building in 1995.
Wrapping public landmarks wasn’t their only trademark, though. In 1972, Christo and Jeanne-Claude masterminded Valley Curtain, in which a large cloth was stretched across Rifle Gap in Colorado. This project, successful only in its second attempt — after the first attempt in 1971, was ripped apart by wind and rock — stood for only 28 hours before gale-force winds shredded that as well. And in 1983, the artist couple finished Surrounded Islands, in which 11 islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay were surrounded by pink polypropylene fabric that made them look like giant lily pads.
For New Yorkers, though, Christo will be best remembered for The Gates in 2005, in which 7,503 gates with saffron-colored fabric curtain were put up along paths in Central Park for two weeks in February. The project initially encountered resistance from Parks Department officials in 1981, when it was first proposed, until, in 2004, then-Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg finally gave it the go-ahead. Many of Christo’s projects encountered a similarly protracted trajectory from conception to completion.
Born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff on June 13, 1935 in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, Christo spent his early years in Bulgaria, then under Communist rule. In 1953, he was accepted into the National Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia. Still, he found more fulfillment in 1956 studying and working at a theater in Prague run by avant-garde playwright Emil František Burian. After the Soviet Union put a brutal end to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Christo decided to leave Eastern Europe altogether, secretly embedding himself among medical supplies in a freight car. He eventually landed in Vienna, where he gave up his Bulgarian passport to seek political asylum. After spending a semester at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, he moved to Geneva before landing in Paris in 1958, where he would meet Jeanne-Claude (coincidentally born the same day as Christo). After moving to New York in 1964, he would finally become a United States citizen in 1973.
It was in Paris that he began to pursue his wrapping aesthetic, starting with Inventory, a series of wrapped and painted household items. And it would be then of special significance that after his death, his wrapped public art will still be visible, once again, in Paris. According to the Facebook post mentioned above, Christo’s long-gestating project of wrapping the Arc de Triomphe is still scheduled to be completed by September of this year. Perhaps it’s a comfort to know that, even posthumously, Christo’s art will yet have the potential to bring people together.
Christo is survived by his son, Cyril; a grandson, his brothers Anani and Stefan, and two nephews.