The most well-known environmental artist of this half century, Christo first captured the public's attention in the 1960s by wrapping large-scale structures such as bridges and buildings. In the following three decades his artworks became lavish spectacles involving millions of dollars, acres of materials, and hundreds of square miles of land. His projects are so vast and require so much sophisticated administration, bureaucracy, and construction, that he is best thought of as an artist whose true medium is the real world.
Christo Vladimiorov Javacheff was born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, into an intellectually enlightened family. After study in the art academy in Bulgaria, his work for the avant-garde Burian Theatre in 1956 proved decisive. Christo began wrapping and packaging objects—a technique called "empaquetage"—a year after his move to Paris in 1957. Empaquetage was a reaction to the dominance of tachiste painting, the European version of American abstract expressionism. Conceptual in nature, wrapping isolates commonplace objects and imbues them with a sense of mystery. Christo often used transparent plastic and rope to wrap cars, furniture, bicycles, signs and, for brief periods, female models.
In Paris, Christo became acquainted with the Nouveau Réalistes group, which was interested in using junk materials and with the incorporation of life into art. Soon his artworks utilized tin cans, oil drums, boxes, and bottles. He married Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon, who became his inseparable companion, secretary, treasurer, and collaborator. So close is their partnership that Christo's works often bear Jeanne-Claude's name as well as his own.
The early sixties witnessed Christo's first large-scale projects. Several of these involved barrels, the most famous of which was Iron Curtain—Wall of Oil Drums (1962). A response to the then-new Berlin wall, it consisted of more than two hundred barrels stacked twelve feet high. It effectively shut down traffic for a night on a Paris street. As the sixties wore on, and particularly after Christo moved to New York, his works became larger and even more conceptual. He created Air Packages (large sacs of air that sometimes hovered over museums), wrapped trees, and even packaged a medieval tower. In 1968 Christo wrapped two museum buildings, the Künsthalle Museum in Bern, Switzerland, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The latter required sixty-two pieces of brown tarpaulin and two miles of brown rope.
About this time, Christo's attention turned to the vast spaces of landscape. For Wrapped Coast—One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Australia (1969) he covered a rocky, mile-long stretch of coastline with a million square feet of polythene sheeting and thirty-six miles of rope. The work was the first of his projects in which Christo had to solve problems connected to government agencies and public institutions. Controversy erupted when nurses on the privately owned land protested because they thought that hospital money was being diverted and that a recreational beach would be shut down. Actually, Christo paid for the project himself and allowed for the beach to remain open.
While teaching in Colorado, Christo became intrigued by the Rocky Mountain landscape. Valley Curtain (1971-72, Rifle Gap, Colorado) was composed of two hundred thousand square feet of nylon hung from a cable between two cliffs. The bright orange nylon curtain weighed four tons. Organizational, economic, and public relations problems delayed construction for a time, but these were exactly the challenges Christo and Jeanne-Claude had become so adept in solving. To raise the $850,000 needed, the couple created the Valley Curtain Corporation. As would become customary, Christo's drawings, plans, models, and photographs of Valley Curtain were sold as art objects to raise money for building the massive artwork. The first curtain was almost instantly ripped to pieces by high winds; a union boss had told his workers to quit for the day before it was properly secured. The second curtain was ruined by a sandstorm the day after it was hung, but not before it was unfurled to the cheers of media, news crews, and onlookers. A half-hour documentary was made to register the course of the work's construction. In all of Christo's projects, photography and documentary film are used extensively to record the activities surrounding what are essentially temporary structures.
For his next project, Running Fence (1976), Christo raised two million dollars through the sale of book and film rights and from works of art associated with the project. Christo obtained the permission of fifty-nine private ranchers and fifteen government organizations. Ironically, the strongest opposition came from local artists who regarded the project as a mere publicity stunt. Christo then became a passionate lobbyist for his project, appearing at local meetings and agency hearings. Winding through Marin and Sonoma counties, the eighteen-foot-high fence traversed twenty-four miles over private ranches, roads, small towns, and subdivisions on its way to a gentle descent into the Pacific Ocean. Open-minded viewers found it lyrically beautiful; indeed, beauty is one of Christo's unabashed aims.
Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83 was Christo's major work of the eighties and involved floating rafts of shocking pink polypropane entirely enclosing eleven small islands. It required more than four hundred assistants and $3.5 million to complete. Sensitive to the environment, Christo decided not to surround three islands because they were home to endangered manatees, birds, and plants. Even so, Christo and Jeanne-Claude still had to contend with lawsuits, lawyers, and public groups. Though Surrounded Islands extended for eleven miles and traversed a major city, it was strikingly lovely. Like Running Fence, Surrounding Islands existed for only two weeks.
Christo staged The Umbrellas, Japan—U.S.A. 1984-91 simultaneously in the landscapes north of Tokyo and of Los Angeles. Roughly fifteen hundred specially designed umbrellas (yellow ones in California, blue ones in Japan) dotted the respective countrysides over areas of several miles. Only twenty-six landowners had to be won over in California; in Japan, where land is even more precious, the number was 459. The umbrellas were nearly twenty feet high and weighed over five hundred pounds each. Having cost the artist $26 million to produce, the umbrellas stood for only three weeks beginning on October 9, 1991. Christo ended the project after a woman in California was killed when high winds uprooted an umbrella. During the dismantling of the umbrellas in Japan, a crane operator was electrocuted.
Altogether, Christo's art involves manipulating public social systems. As the artist has said, "We live in an essentially economic, social, and political world…. I think that any art that is less political, less economical, less social today, is simply less contemporary."
—Mark B. Pohlad
Baal-Teshuva, Jacob. Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Cologne, Benedikt Taschen, 1995.
Christo: The Reichstag and Urban Projects. Munich, Prestel, 1993.
Laporte, Dominique G. Christo. Translated from the French by Abby Pollak. New York, Pantheon Books, 1986.
Spies, Werner. Introduction to Christo, Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83, by Christo. New York, Abrams, 1985.
Vaizey, Marina. Christo. New York, Rizzoli, 1990.