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The Freedom to be Christo and Jeanne-Claude


By Professor Albert Elsen

Editor's note: At the request of the artists and with the kind permission of the Executor of the Estate of Albert E. Elsen, all references to the artist "Christo" have been changed to "Christo and Jeanne-Claude" or words to that effect wherever appropriate.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's art is the creation of temporary, beautiful objects on a vast scale for specific outdoor sites. 1 It is in the populist nature of their thinking that they believe people should have intense and memorable experiences of art outside museums. Otherwise there is no rational purpose for their projects. They do not satisfy our practical needs. No causes are pleaded. The projects are their own reason for being, but in the late twentieth century they are also tributes to artistic freedom. Christo and Jeanne-Claude confront what does exist with what they alone have determined can exist as a dramatic and beautiful form. Their art therefore is the result of intelligence and aesthetic intuition added to the natural and built environment. We often understand all this only when we have experienced the projects directly and realized that in a poetic way our lives have been changed, as has our comprehension of what art can be and do.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's art is a unique mixture of self-assertion and self-effacement. They do not sign their finished projects, but the works are unmistakably theirs. Unlike a warrior-ruler such as Napoleon, who is forever associated with sites by force of arms, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's permanent identification with places and historic structures is by the force of art. They borrow land, public structures and spaces; sites used and built by others and already freighted with associations that may or may not have anything to do with art. They momentarily intervene, creating as Christo puts it, "gentle disturbances" between earth and sky in order to refocus our impressions of an old historic structure or of the earth itself. The artists believe the temporary nature of their projects gives them more energy and intensifies our response. But once they have wrapped a structure or intervened in a place, they are forever associated with that site.

No artists in history have spent as much time introducing themselves and their art to people around the world as have Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The success of their projects with the public in Switzerland, West Germany, Australia, Italy, France, Japan, the United States and elsewhere is due, in no small part, to their accessibility and natural gifts as teachers. They were the first artists to voluntarily conduct human as well as environmental impact reports for their projects. Most artists feel that having to educate the public directly takes too much time away from their own work. For Christo and Jeanne-Claude, verbal interaction with the public is a genuine part of their creativity. Actually, they have several motives for this extraordinary expenditure of time away from the studio as they are artists who waste nothing. On a practical level, by informing all those who will be involved with their projects, they make the project's realization easier. On a personal level, they genuinely care about people and their responses to the art. The artists' projects are not completely thought out and settled beforehand, but evolve slowly over the years. Thus, on a professional level, each interview and every conversation encourages Christo and Jeanne-Claude to think freshly about unforeseen implications, to make new associations and changes. Talking about their art is like the making of the drawings and collage studies; it allows their subconscious to intervene and their critical minds to assess what they have done.

Christo's early background only partially explains the man and his and Jeanne-Claude's art. His birth in Bulgaria and classical education at art academies in Sofia and Vienna did not anticipate the appearance of his unconventional art or its method of financing. Nevertheless, the fact that he came from a socialist country may explain why the realizing of his art requires hundreds if not thousands of people, and also that it is free to the public. His work as a young man, with thousands of others, on ephemeral state projects like beautifying the landscape beside Bulgarian railway tracks may somehow connect with the temporary nature and heroic scope of his art.

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Over The River, Project For Arkansas River, Colorado.
Drawing 1992. 1992 Christo.
Photo: Simon Chaput

As artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude are as unclassifiable as their art. They are at once painter and sculptor, and yet neither, just Christo and Jeanne-Claude. In this exhibition, we can see for ourselves how Christo's original vision is seconded by his solid draughtsmanship and numerous preliminary studies for a project, both of which are legacies of his early academic education, certifying his credentials as an artist in the traditional sense.

His use of Cubist-derived collage to unite drawings, materials, maps and photographs is the mark of a modern artist. Beginning with his training as a painter working on stretched canvases, fabric has always been essential to Christo and Jeanne-Claude's art. The fabric itself supplies the colour: the off-white of Wrapped Coast and Running Fence, the rich gold of The Pont Neuf Wrapped, the flamingo pink of the Miami Surrounded Islands, the planned golden gates for Central Park in New York City, the yellow and blue of The Umbrellas project.

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Wrapped Coast.
1969 Christo.
Photo: Harry Shunk
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Running Fence.
1976 Christo.
Photo: AK Ciesielski
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Pont Neuf Wrapped.
1982 Christo.
Photo: Eeva Inkeri

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Surrounded Islands.
1982 Christo.
Photo: Wolfgang Volz
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The Gates, Project for
Central Park, New York.
Collage, 1981; 1981 Christo.
Photo: Wolfgang Volz
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The Umbrellas.
1991 Christo.
Photo: AK Ciesielski
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The Umbrellas.
1991 Christo.
Photo: Wolfgang Volz

As modern artists they are sensitive to the beauty and expressive character of the continuously sustained linearity of a project such as Running Fence, or the complex spatial relationships possible with their octagonal umbrellas on different elevations for Japan and California. Their use of volumes and voids for The Pont Neuf Wrapped was like creating a draped reclining figure sculpture. The effect of changing light and shadows on their coloured fabrics and the artists' sensitivity to the inherent beauty of engineered structures, such as those for The Umbrellas, mark Christo and Jeanne-Claude as artists at home with the tradition of not just modern but Western art.

Christo's escape from Bulgaria and subsequent arrival in Paris in 1958 opened his thought to Western modern art and gave him a lifelong appreciation of artistic liberty. His marriage to Jeanne-Claude -- who would make a better chief executive officer than most who run our big corporations -- was in a sense a wedding of socialism and capitalism. She has been crucial to conceiving and carrying out his unprecedented method of personally financing his projects, thereby taking full advantage of the capitalist system. She is also vital to overseeing operational details of these daunting projects and to planning their realization.


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Iron Curtain.
Photo: Jean-Dominique Lajoux.
1962 Christo

In the words of Jeanne-Claude, each work by Christo and her is a "scream of freedom." It is as if they were saying with each project, we could not do this or be Christo and Jeanne-Claude under a totalitarian regime. A few works have direct political reference. One of their early projects in Paris was to erect a temporary street barrier of oil barrels as a reference to the Berlin Wall built in 1961. The proposed wrapping of the Reichstag will educate and re-educate thousands into the grim history of this once famous German governmental building burned by the Nazis and now controlled by the four occupying powers of Berlin. All of their art, however, is about what free artists can do. Exercising their liberty, Christo and Jeanne-Claude (Christo is American by choice) remind us that an unfettered artist's "vision" means to see what we cannot see and to think not the unthinkable but rather the imaginable. They are visionaries of the visible, artists who are at once abstract in their thoughts about forms, but who tend to visualize them when inspired by certain specific sites where they feel comfortable with their knowledge of the culture. The strongest motivation for actually realizing the final project, rather than stopping with the studies, is that to do so satisfies their curiosity about how what they could and could not imagine really look like on the site.

The Umbrellas project is a dramatic answer to the question: how shall we live and make responsible use of our freedom? The artists' personal, moral and artistic imperative seems to be to only connect: connect people with people such as those on the Pacific rim; connect the elements of art and nature such as light, space and colour; connect art and engineering to show that they are not enemy faculties; connect people with beautiful materials and structures; connect people with their past and present.

Contrary to traditional sculpture and painting, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work is only finished when it has gone. 2 How ironic then that their ephemeral projects recall that art's purpose includes protecting us - in the words of a poet - against our vanishing. The documentation and studies for their projects are permanent and they will remind future generations that in this century our civilization produced, supported and benefited from these artists who gave new meaning to the word civilized. By wrapping the oldest and most handsome bridge in Paris that had, through centuries of familiarity and neglect, become invisible, or 'vanished,' the Christos restored its visibility, drew attention to the simple elegance of its form, and reminded Parisians that the Pont Neuf was crucial to the history and beauty of that city.

No past or present artists known to this writer have done more to honour work and workers by their art than Christo and Jeanne-Claude. This is because they have effectively redefined the meaning of 'the work of art.' Rather than a noun referring to a finished object, for the Christos work is a verb; it comprises the processes of design and fabrication, public education and the efforts to overcome those legal and bureaucratic restrictions and delays that irritate, frustrate and discourage other artists who make outdoor art. They have not only relied on a cadre of engineers and professional construction supervisors but, as in the Miami project, have provided work for hundreds of people unemployed for lack of skills. To weave and sew the twenty-four and a half miles of fabric for Running Fence, the artists put a small town back to work for a year as its parachute factory was closing at the end of the Vietnam war. By permanently recording the physical and intellectual efforts that go into the execution of their projects, these artists pay tribute to workers of all types. Both Christo and Jeanne-Claude think of themselves as workers. They do not accept voluntary labour, not just for insurance purposes, but because they believe honest labour should be paid for. They are paid a modest salary from the corporation set up for each project and they live in a spartanly furnished lower Manhattan loft that is mostly work space.

Over the last thirty years, no other artists have been more indefatigable, difficult or impossible to discourage, more resourceful and ingenious in problem solving. What other artists know the sheer ambition of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's projects and pays for them entirely by the sale of Christo's studies and not gifts or grants?

Many things that are wrong with art in public are the result of not having learned from these humane artists: such art should not be arrogant, intimidating or confrontational, but joyful and uplifting; the beautiful is always welcome; the public should not be damned but informed, and permanence is not an imperative. When talking in 1976 with California Bay Area artists about Running Fence, I was interested to find a consensus of opinion about Christo and Jeanne-Claude's influence. All agreed: Christo and Jeanne-Claude gave us new incentives to be daring.



1 From: Christo. Sydney: The John Kaldor Art Project; Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1990. Pages 13-16. This catalog accompanied an exhibition held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth.

2 Editor's note: To view a video file of the wrapping and unwrapping of the Reichstag, go to the KULTERBOX Reichstag site and select either the small (3.8 MB) or large (12.7 MB) files.



Albert Elsen (1928-1995) held the Walter A. Haas Professorship in the Humanities, Stanford University. He joined the Stanford University faculty in 1968.

1998, The Executor of the Albert E. Elsen Estate



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