Remembering Christo and Jeanne-Claude

“It will give shape to the wind. It will go over the hills and into the sea, like a ribbon of light.”
– from environmental-impact report for Running Fence

Lost amid the whirlwinds of news—COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd and resultant demonstrations, opportunistic rioting and looting—is the obituary of the artist Christo, who has died at age eighty-four.

With Jeanne-Claude, his wife and collaborator, Christo gave the world wondrous, larger-than-life art installations in public spaces. All were open to everyone at no cost; Christo and Jeanne-Claude financed the projects themselves. They were all temporary, gone without a trace after a couple weeks, with no environmental damage and no public expense.

Christo & Jeanne-Claude in Central Park

We had heard about Christo’s Central Park project—The Gates—and thought it would be fun to see. We arranged a New York City trip for the time the installation would be up, two weeks in February. We planned to visit Central Park on the first day to take a look at The Gates. We’d then have five more days for tourist things. As it turned out, The Gates pulled us back into the park every day.

Seventy-five hundred fabric panels traversed twenty-three miles of the park’s foot paths. Christo had been working on the project for years, from its conception in 1979 to its display in 2005. It took a new mayor, Bloomberg, for the installation to finally receive official approval.

We ambled along the paths under the curtains hanging from frames, each frame the exact width of the path. The saffron-colored fabric formed billowing ribbons in bright contrast to the barren trees and the chilly gray of that Valentine’s week. What began as curiosity became fascination. We wandered through most of Central Park, going back every day we were in the city. I did my part to finance the work: I have a Gates t-shirt that I still wear occasionally and a framed print of The Gates in Central Park displayed on the wall.

The artist was born Christo Javaceff in Bulgaria. In his early years, he made his living painting portraits for the well-to-do in Eastern Europe, Austria and then France. He met Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon in Paris while painting a portrait of her mother. She was born in Casablanca on the same day and year as Christo. Jeanne-Claude died in 2009. Their public projects were billed as Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Neither used a last name. Jeanne-Claude did much of the work financing the grandiose projects, largely through sales of Christo’s artwork.
Christo began wrapping and tying objects as a sort of sideline to his portrait work. Beginning with furniture, road signs, shopping carts he worked his way to much larger objects: the Reichstag building in Berlin and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Shortly after I moved to Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County Museum hosted an exhibition commemorating the twenty-year anniversary of Christo’s Running Fence. Twenty-four miles of billowing fabric arose from the Pacific Ocean at Bodega Bay, followed the undulating hills of Marin and Sonoma counties, and ended near Petaluma. (Alfred Hitchcock filmed his thriller “The Birds” near Bodega Bay.) Fabric panels, sixty-eight-feet long, eighteen-feet high attached to steel posts crossed forty-eight parcels of private land. The white panels changed hue with the changing September sunlight and time of day. Running Fence was a four-and-a-half-year project, beginning in 1972. Eighteen public hearings, three Superior Court proceedings and a four-hundred-page Environmental Impact Report preceded the work. Final cost was three-million dollars, equivalent to $13.5 million today.

Opposition to the project caused the formation of the Committee to Stop Running Fence, a purported environmental group. The artistic community fought the undertaking also, saying it was not really art, but a massive joke.
The hippie-ish-appearing artists gained the support of the farmers and ranchers over whose land it would traverse. Christo and especially Jeanne-Claude won over the arch-conservative landowners. As one rancher put it, no unelected Coastal Commission was going to tell him that he “couldn’t build a fence on his own land.”

Sonoma County has undergone much change over forty-five years. People who lived there in the 1970s—and many, like me, who weren’t there until later—have fond memories of Christo and Jeanne-Claude and the Running Fence. A wrapped Snoopy’s doghouse is on display in the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa.

Christo had one major project in the works at the time of his death: wrapping the Arc de Triomphe in Paris with silvery blue polypropylene fabric and red rope. According to the statement announcing Christo’s death, the project will go ahead in 2021.

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