Christo and Jeanne-Claude “Valley Curtain” (1970–72), Rifle, Colorado

(a lifetime of) Christo and Jeanne Claude

The passing of late artist Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, a few days before his 85th birthday this week, has prompted the art world to revisit some of the monumental works of the artist’s oeuvre. Together with his wife Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, who passed away in 2009, they became world-renowned as collaborative duo Christo and Jeanne- Claude. Since they first met in 1961, their legacy as artists has vitally shaped our experience with public land art.

As one of their last completed projects in Europe, “The London Mastaba” (2018), an idea originally conceived in 1962, was revealed to the public in summer 2018 on the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park. The sculpture, a flat-topped pyramid, consisted of a structure of 7506 blue, red and purple coloured oil barrels that had been constructed to stay afloat for almost three months. This particular installation reflected the very artistic beginnings of the duo. As a typical medium, the barrels were firstly utilised in their body of work at the beginning of the 1960s. As seen in works such as “Wall of Oil Barrels-The Iron Curtain” (1961-1962).

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, “Wall of Oil Barrels - The Iron Curtain” (1961–62), Rue Visconti, Paris

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, “Wall of Oil Barrels - The Iron Curtain” (1961–62), Rue Visconti, Paris

Born in 1935 in Bulgaria, Christo studied painting, architecture and sculpture in the 1950s. After moving to Paris in 1958, he met Jeanne Claude as he was hired to paint a portrait of her mother. The couple emigrated to the United States in 1964, where they realised their series “Store Fronts” consisting of multiple projects during the mid-1960s. These early projects aided the funding of large scale collaborations and through their engagement with international projects, as well as their participation in documenta 4 (1968) the artists quickly gained an internationally acclaimed reputation.

In New York, the duo began to create their veiled artworks, a technique which would become central to their practice. Together they wrapped buildings, trees, islands and more. Both were consistently conscious of financing the projects themselves through the production and sale of accompanying artworks such as drawings, wrapped objects or sketches of ongoing projects. This way they could allow themselves to work independently by avoiding any dependence on public or private funding.

“Wrapped Reichstag” (1972)

“Wrapped Reichstag” (1995)

“Wrapped Reichstag” (1971-1995)

The images of a veiled German Reichstag circulated around the world in 1995, when after an ambitious install and 24 years of planning, the artists and their project team had successfully covered the famous parliament building in thick white fabric. At the time the largest artwork ever created, it is said to have attracted 5 million visitors in the 14 days of its exhibition. The immense symbolic force behind Christo and Jeanne Claude’s sculptures is undeniable. It was where Germany was declared a Republic in 1918 and despite its troubled history, it was a symbol of freedom for the artists. The concept of freedom was a consistent theme in their body of work, often referenced with Christo’s past. During the Hungarian revolution in 1956, the artist fled the growing Russian suppression and eventually relocated to Vienna.

Due to this temporality and in some cases interactive nature, works such as “The Floating Piers” (2014-2016) have fostered incomparable public attention. A reveal of a Christo & Jeanne Claude sculpture has prompted their admirers to travel around the world to experience the installations in person before they are taken down. Persistence is another keyword for the artist’s practice. Nearly every large scale public proposal was met with bureaucratic hurdles and permit issues, revealing questions about the ownership of public space. In an interview with Tate Modern Christo once noted: “Everything in the world belongs to somebody”. For Christo and Jeanne-Claude, each project, therefore, meant extensive, often years of preparatory work, which is documented in published sketches and accompanying artworks on paper.

There were several planned but not yet realised projects, such as the veiling of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which was set to become a reality in September and October this year. The work is now planned to be revealed posthumously in 2021.