The Wrapper of the World-Christo Javacheff (1935 – 2020)

This morning, while looking through the usual news feed, I found the announcement that Christo Jabacheff, more commonly known by his first name of Christo, had passed away. He was 84.

I first heard of Christo in Art History class. I deliberately avoided taking modern art classes because I believed there wasn’t much art in the 20th century to speak of (ah, the arrogance of youth!) but my art history professor was sneaky. She loved to connect past art to modern works, and she loved to open her classes with the infinate question: What is art?

And then she showed a couple of Christo pieces. As I recall, it was these:

See the source image
The Wrapped Reichstag, completed and removed in 1995
See the source image
Running Fence, a 24-mile installation in California, completed and removed in 1976

My professor told us this was by the famous artist Christo, and then asked, “Is this art? What do you think?”

Now, I don’t remember much about the conversation, I do remember she told us a bit about this Christo character, but at the same time, I remember these images clearly (which shows it DID have an impact) but I also remember being confused by them: was it art?

“Christo” was more than a person…it was two

Come to find out, these art installations were done by a husband-and-wife team, of which Christo was the husband. At the time, in the 60s and 70s, the couple felt their work had a better chance under his name, due to prejudice against female artists in various fields (Georgia O’Keefe, a contemporary, would probably have agreed!)

As the years and successful projects rolled by, they chose, in 1994, to start “signing” by their combined names: “Christo and Jeanne-Claude,” and she was fully acknowledged as his equal creative partner-and always had been. As she said,

“The decision to use only the name Christo was made deliberately when we were young because it was difficult for one artist to be established and we wanted to put all the chances on our side.’

And now I do think they are art, of an interesting sort.

Christo and Jeanne Claude practiced a form of temporal art: their signature was wrapping, or fabric curtaining various landmarks around the world. Their work was designed to be removeable, to leave the land or landmark exactly as it had been before they started, with no permanent mark.

Now, he’s wrapped smaller items too: phones (back when they had a handset and a curled cord…kids, go ask your parents if they don’t know what that looks like <eyeroll, heavy sigh…I’m not THAT old, am I?> ), books, chairs, a Volkswagon…but he-or rather, they-are most well known for these monumental, magna-scale landscape and landmark wrapping.

If you wanted to see Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s massive works, you had to travel to see it during the few days it would be up, and you could enjoy it before it was removed…the only record it had ever been would be through the memories and photographs taken while it was up. All of Christo’s works were completely removeable, and many times, the materials were recyclable. During the 10-14 days these works were usually up, hundreds of thousands of people PER DAY would travel to see these things.

Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, and in the wake of her death, Christo changed his art style, doing less wrapping, but more “floating” of objects. Whether it was making a temporary brightly orange Floating Piers in a lake in Italy, or the Floating Mastaba in London.

The Upcoming Arc

His first signature wrapping project since Jeanne-Claude’s death was due to open in April 2019: Wrapping Paris’s iconic Arc de Triomphe. This year, the Centre Pompidou was running a retrospective of the six years when Christo and Jeanne-Claude lived in Paris (1958 – 1964) plus a collection of items related to the Christo team’s wrapping of Paris’s Pont-Neuf Bridge in 1985…they wondered if Christo wanted to do anything …and he wanted to resurrect an idea he and Jeanne-Claude had back in the 1960s….wrapping the Arc.

It would be in silvery-white and blue recyclable fabric, secured with red robe and tape (in honor of the French national colors of Red-White-and Blue) and wrapped during the April exhibition this spring.

That was moved to September, to avoid the peregrine falcon nesting season! (Who knew the Arc was a peregrine falcon nesting site, but apparently, it is!)

Then the project was moved to 2021, in the hopes that COVID would be over and far enough in the past to allow all those who wanted to see the first wrapping work by Christo in over a decade to come.

And now Christo has died in New York, while waiting for COVID to pass. His death includes no mention of COVID, but it’s kinds of sad.

The Arc is moving ahead still, enough work and such was done to know how Christo planned to do it that the French work teams can fulfill his vision (he never “created” these monumental works…they were always done by construction workers who could safely move the required materials.)

But when it opens in September, 2021, it will be the first, last, and only time that one of Christo’s wrapping exhibits opened without him being there to oversee its creation. And once it’s removed, these large, monumental works will be gone forever.

And that, I think, is rather sad.

For more information:

Town and Country Article about Christo and Jeanne-Claude

One of Christo’s last interviews, done during the COVID quarantine