Christo (b. 1935)

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CHRISTO (b. 1935)


Bulgarian-born artist known for environmental art installations created in collaboration with his wife, Jeanne-Claude.

Since their first collaborative project in 1961, Dockside Packages (Cologne, West Germany), Christo and Jeanne-Claude (who use only their first names) have repackaged the ecological contexts of urban and rural environments through experimental transformations. Creating a fusion of artistic and societal engagement, they have engineered dozens of heroically scaled, transitory site-oriented works emerging out of the pop idiom of the 1960s and earth art movement of the early 1970s. Critical acclaim and enthusiastic endorsements are shared by aesthetic theorists, avid collectors, and supportive curators as well as civic and public leaders for expanding art's definition into new dimensions of social and community activism. The ensuing public discourse—Is it art? What does it mean?—becomes an essential element of the artistic process. Arguing before zoning boards and town councils, they encourage a dialogue between highbrow critics and Everyman. Less sympathetic observers have questioned their relentless self-promotion, claiming these stunts have relied on media promotion fueled by a Dada-inspired, antiart populism stripping away artistic boundaries. Accepting no commercial sponsors or corporate donations, they express a determination to "work in total freedom."

With constantly innovative uses of industrial materials called "hardware," they achieve disquieting acts of subterfuge and transformation. Landmark buildings, geological sites, public parks, and other iconic locations are characteristically wrapped in tarpaulins, draped in canvas, or concealed in thousands of square meters of fabrics and ropes, each given new but only temporary physical identities. Because these projects are expected to live by creation, not merely as sketchbook dreams, Christo and Jean-Claude dismiss being called conceptual artists. Documentary films and elaborate "not for profit" funding schemes have gained them an enviable reputation as Robin-Hood-like artists-provocateurs.

Fatefully entwined, their destinies began at the same hour on 13 June 1935 when they were both born, but in dramatically diverse political circumstances. Christo (Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, born and raised in Gabrovo, Bulgaria) grew up in an educated, comfortable family of textile industrialists. Jeanne-Claude (Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon) was born in Casablanca, Morocco, to a prominent French military family. She enjoyed an affluent childhood pampered in the milieu of colonial North Africa as her father rose to the rank of general. Christo's early years in the People's Republic of Bulgaria, a repressive satellite state of the communist Soviet empire, left an indelible impression. An ongoing quest for artistic freedom can be traced back to his memories of censored, restricted art in this era of Stalinist-driven socialist realism. An underlying motif would become permeating invisible borders, walls, and fences analogous to his origins behind the Iron Curtain. Between 1953 and 1956 Christo was quickly recognized for his superior drawing skills at the conservative Fine Arts Academy of Sofia. Ironically, his formative years were in complete isolation from postwar avant-garde movements and styles between Paris and New York. Escaping to the West from Prague to Vienna in a freezing, unheated freight train on 10 January 1957, Christo literally arrived without any possessions. He attended the Vienna Fine Arts Academy, stayed temporarily in Geneva, and arrived in Paris in 1958. The penniless Bulgarian artist met the privileged socialite in the Latin Quarter as their journeys merged into a single artistic persona.

Early influences can be traced to a transition from abstract expressionism to pop in commonplace, man-made materials used by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Wrapped Bottles and Cans (1958–1959) were Christo's first "packaged objects" establishing the theme of material alteration. Wrapped Bottles and Cans began an extended series of related "wrappings." While insisting their purpose is "more about altering an environment," the idea for wrapping was an underlying motif culminating in 1975 with the "wrapping" of the Pont Neuf in Paris. Furthermore, they are quick to rectify misconceptions noting that it is "totally idiotic" to label them erroneously as "wrapping artists." Appreciating their use of "fabric, cloth, and textiles" in a manner that is "fragile, sensual, and temporary" enforces the notion that "wrapping is not at all the common denominator of the works."

Following the art world's shift from the lethargy of Paris, they established their permanent residence and studio in New York in 1964, and he became a U.S. citizen in 1973. A prescient New York Times review (2 May 1964) mentions the newly landed Christo's "pet trick … wrapped packages prompting curiosity." The astonishing future direction for Christo and Jeanne-Claude's career trajectory, utilizing hundreds of thousands of square feet of tarpaulin, miles of woven nylon fabrics, steel cables and ropes, and tons of steel and concrete, each project with a multimillion-dollar budget, has shaped one of the unique artistic résumés of the twentieth century.

Major projects often require an evolutionary process requiring a span of years or even decades from initial germination to realized completions. During the intial "software" period, the project evolves through preparatory drawings, collages, and scale models. As momentum gathers, Christo and Jeanne-Claude move toward "crystallization" of the project and oversee construction of the project's "hardware," inventing engineering and construction blueprints. The projects ultimately reach completion for days or a few weeks at a time under the glare of news media coverage and fine art photography and documentary cinematography capturing the moment. This is an "aesthetic decision" allowing the artists to "endow the works of art with the feeling of urgency to be seen, and the tenderness brought by the fact that it will not last."

Among their most noteworthy experimental projects are: Wrapped Kunsthalle (Bern, Switzerland, 1968); Wrapped Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, 1969); Valley Curtain (Rifle, Colorado, 1970–1972); Wrapped Roman Wall (Rome, 1974); Running Fence (Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972–1976); Surrounded Islands (Biscayne Bay, Miami, 1980–1983); The Pont Neuf Wrapped (Paris, 1975–1985); The Umbrellas (Ibaraki, Japan, and California, 1984–1991); Wrapped Reichstag (Berlin, 1971–1995); Wrapped Trees (Riehen-Basel, Switzerland, 1997–1998); The Gates (Central Park, New York City, 1979–2005); and Over the River (Arkansas River, Colorado, in progress at this writing.) Recognized as global artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are remarkably unpretentious, humorous, and humbled by their celebrity. They continue to enlighten and amuse, creating beguiling and intellectually unpredictable intersections between art and life. A ceaseless itinerary sparks this sprawling legacy of artistic prophesy alighting on four continents.

See alsoAvant-Garde.


Chernow, Burt. Christo and Jeanne-Claude: A Biography. Epilogue by Wolfgang Volz. New York, 2002.

Fineberg, Jonathan. Christo and Jeanne-Claude: On the Way to the Gates. New Haven, Conn., 2004.

Laporte, Dominique. Christo. Translated by Abby Pollak. New York, 1986.

Schellmann, Jorg, and Josephine Benecke. Christo Prints and Objects 1963–1995: A Catalogue Raisonné. Munich and New York, 1995.

Vaizey, Marina. Christo. Barcelona, 1990.

Philip Eliasoph