Certain artists stick: their work embeds in our thoughts and continues to resonate long after they are gone. Christo, who died on May 31, is certainly among them. I began working with him and his life and artistic partner Jeanne-Claude (who predeceased him in 2009) some 27 years ago. A bit later, they became the subjects of the first show I curated at the National Gallery of Art: Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the Vogel Collection, which opened in 2002. I continued working with the Christos (as they were known)—writing for their exhibition catalogs, joining them on the sites of their projects, and conducting several interviews, the last one on April 11, 2019. What I learned from them has formed my own practice as a curator.
Our final conversation in 2019 centered on Christo’s intense desire to “only make things that are real,” which “would give one life” through “experiences that ignited the senses.” Fiercely independent, he escaped Communist Bulgaria in 1956 and became a stateless refugee for many years. Making his way through Prague, Vienna, Geneva, and Paris, he settled with Jeanne-Claude and their son in New York City. The reality he was so driven to create is clearly evident in their many large-scale public projects—notably The Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971–1995 and The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979–2005. Millions of people from around the world experienced these exuberant happenings. Getting art into free and open spaces was a main goal, and one that I share.
Christo began wrapping in Geneva in 1958, covering simple cans and objects with canvas and tying them with rope and twine. A complex reaction to the packaged consumer goods of capitalism as well as to the closed culture of Communism, these sculptures embody the tensions of the Cold War era. He admitted to me, in an interview on November 14, 2005, that the early wrapped objects are also a summation, as in the phrase “to wrap things up,” and represent the abrupt and traumatic finality of his life in Communist Bulgaria. Fabric became the common denominator of Christo’s work, as his art in form and conception moved from concealing to revealing. It was a gradual unfurling, literally.
By the 1970s the work shows an increasing liberation of form that reflects his experience with Jeanne-Claude in the West. See, for instance, Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972–1976. To realize such complex projects, the Christos dedicated countless hours, relentless determination, and a laser focus on both the big picture and the smallest detail. Their tenacity, maintained over long periods of time, is inspirational. Radiating the freedom and independence that Christo sought and found, the ambitious public projects have always energized audiences and remain fixed in the popular imagination. Working until his last day, Christo was forging ahead with Wrapped L’Arc de Triomphe (Project for Paris), conceived in 1962. According to his wishes, it is planned for fall 2021 in the city where he met Jeanne-Claude.