Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, a husband-and-wife team, “wrapped” Berlin’s Reichstag in 1995. The couple turned Paris’ Pont Neuf into a silky golden boulevard across the Seine in 1985, and they surrounded 11 islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay with hot pink fabric floating on the water in 1983.
The Christos have gained both fame and notoriety. The enormous costs, temporary nature and creative effort of wrapping a Parisian bridge and Germany’s symbol of reunification raised questions in Europe and the United States. “The Wrapped Reichstag” lasted only from June 24 to July 7, 1995.
“Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the Vogel Collection,” which opens tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art, should help alleviate doubts and answer questions about the Christos’ flourish with fabric.
Surprisingly, it is the first survey in the United States of work by the couple. The show encompasses the early packages and wrapped objects; the enclosing of buildings, such as the Reichstag; and site-specific, temporary outdoor installations.
The Christos have become impresarios not only with art, but with funding for their projects. At a press conference Tuesday for the exhibition, the flame-haired Jeanne-Claude and Christo, both 66, described some of the costs. She said the “Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin” cost $13 million. “The Umbrellas, Japan-U.S.A. (1984-91),” which installed 1,340 giant blue umbrellas in Ibaraki, Japan, and 1,760 yellow ones in California, cost $26 million.
“Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83” cost $3.5 million. The price tag for “Wrapped Trees, Fondation Beyeler and Berower Park, Riehen-Basel, Switzerland, 1997-98” was $1.1 million.
The Christos say on their Web site (christojeanneclaude.net) that they cover the entire cost of the artwork through the sale of preparatory studies, early works and original lithographs. Their Web site also declares that “It is totally idiotic to call Christo and Jeanne-Claude the ‘wrapping artists.’ So many works were not about wrapping.”
Jeanne-Claude defends the temporary nature of their work. “Impermanence gives our work a measure of time urgency. There is a quality of love and tenderness for things that do not last which we give to childhood and to our own lives,” she says.
The Christos met Dorothy and Herbert Vogel in 1971. The Vogels had heard about the artist couple, who moved to New York from Paris in 1964, and asked to visit the Christos’ studio.
Jeanne-Claude laughs when she remembers that she and Christo thought that wealthy collectors were coming to buy something. The Vogels weren’t wealthy the legendary couple amassed an art collection while Dorothy worked as a librarian and Herbert as a postal clerk and they thought the art too expensive. Jeanne-Claude recalls it was after “Wrapped Coast” in 1971.
Later, when the Christos were working on their “Valley Curtain” project, they needed care for Gladys, whom Jeanne-Claude described as “a gorgeous cat, our special living ‘object.’” Jeanne-Claude knew the Vogels loved animals, and she proposed the collectors cat-sit in exchange for the “Valley Curtain” collage. “This is how it really started,” Jeanne-Claude says of the friendship.
The Vogel collection was acquired by the National Gallery in 1991.
Christo was born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, of a Belgian industrialist family and Jeanne-Claude in Casablanca of a French military family. They have the same birthday, June 13, 1935.
Christo’s training at the Sofia Fine Arts Academy required him to help politicize his fellow citizens. He painted billboard portraits of communist leaders to help indoctrinate Bulgarians. The academy also sent him to instruct peasants how to display their hay and tractors advantageously for passing travelers along the Orient Express railroad route.
He escaped to the West in 1957 from Prague, where he had studied briefly, by stowing away on a freight car carrying medical supplies to Vienna. He eventually made his way to Paris, where he and Jeanne-Claude met in 1958 when he was painting portraits of her family. She had studied Latin and philosophy at the University of Tunis.
Later, Christo legally changed his name to Christo from Christo Vladimnirov Javacheff and she altered hers from Jeanne-Claude Marie de Guillebon.
They have a son, Cyril, 42, who is a poet and film producer.
The Christos address and solve the most important issues of today’s art by shattering lines separating painting, sculpture and architecture, says show curator Molly Donovan.
Their favored medium, fabric, is perfect for breaking down rigid categories and takes on a sensuously beautiful physicality in their work. They chose it for its flowing and evanescent qualities.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed a giant expanse of vivid orange nylon polyamide in a “V” between two mountains 1,250 feet apart for “Valley Curtain, Grand Hogback, Rifle, Colorado, 1970-72.”
“The fabric would divide the earth and sky between east and west, thus resonating with Christo’s own emigration from the Eastern bloc in 1957,” Miss Donovan writes in the show’s catalog.
“Valley Curtain” was the couple’s first large project in the American landscape and shows their changing use of fabric. The preparatory collage was an important part of the Vogels’ collection, as it is now of the National Gallery’s.
The folds of “Curtain” are volatile and charismatic. Unfortunately, “Valley Curtain” survived only 28 hours, when gale-force winds forced its removal.
Christo first used burlap or canvas for wrapping objects in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1959. Created just after his escape from the communist bloc, the wrapped objects expressed his ironic reactions to Western capitalist packaging and consumerism. He also explored the Marcel Duchamp notion that art can be found in the most ordinary of objects.
The first Christo and Jeanne-Claude projects using fabrics involved extant architecture such as the “Pont Neuf” and “Wrapped Reichstag.” The artists employed fabrics as teasers that simultaneously hid and revealed the character of what they enclosed.
For the Reichstag, an aluminum-coated polypropylene fabric of 1,076,000 square feet and more than double the covered surface was sewn into 70 panels. Ninety climbers and 120 installation workers cascaded the silvery material down the sides of the building and then bound it with 17,060 yards of blue rope on June 17, 1995. The fabric created kinetic reflective folds that seemed to make the building move in the wind.
The Christos used fabric in freer and more open ways when they turned to fashioning structures that simulated tensile-like architecture. One was “Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, 1968-69,” their first large-scale project in a rural setting. “Wrapped Coast” was the beginning of what critics would call the pair’s “environmental” work.
Other “environments” were “Surrounded Islands” and “Umbrellas.” Christo’s 1983 drawing for “Surrounded Islands” shows the wonderful draftsmanship that characterizes all his work. The drawing also demarcates the Day-Glo pink fabric and biomorphic shapes of the “islands.” It’s been called the most surreal and female of the projects. Christo calls it “their most painterly work” with its flatness and brilliant color.
The artists further explored the environment with their two-country umbrella project in Japan and the United States. Utilizing yellow umbrellas in Southern California to represent the dry environment, and blue ones in Ibaraki prefecture of Japan to symbolize wet surroundings, the artists created complementary-colored installations Miss Donovan calls “both physically distant and physically the same.”
Christo dismantled the project in both countries after one of the umbrellas was uprooted by strong winds and fatally crushed a tourist about 60 miles north of Los Angeles.
Christo has used oil barrels as symbols of political protest since the 1960s. One of his first in the West was “The Iron Curtain Wall of Oil Barrels, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1961-62.”
It was an unauthorized wall of 240 barrels that closed off a narrow, historic street and stayed up for eight hours. Miss Donovan characterizes it as part of the 1960s social turmoil. She believes “Iron Curtain” confronted issues of ownership, demonstrations and revolutions
Christo continued using oil barrels for a recent project, “Abu Dhabi Mastaba, Project for United Arab Emirates,” begun in 1977, and in progress. The artists made its form (piled-up oil barrels) and content symbolic of what they call “the 20th-century oil culture.” The project was visualized during the energy crisis of the late 1970s. It’s moved on to a recognition of oil as a precious, but dangerous, commodity that repeatedly starts conflicts.
WHAT: “Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the Vogel Collection”
WHERE: National Gallery of Art East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, beginning tomorrow through June 23