Commentary Magazine

Over the River with Christo & Jeanne-Claude

The exhibit Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Over the River, A Work in Progress,1 on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., through January 25, contains about 200 drawings, collages, and photographs documenting in painstaking detail the plan by the artists to suspend fabric sections horizontally over 5.9 miles of the Arkansas River in Colorado between, to quote the show’s catalogue, “mid-July and mid-August of any given year in the future, in 2012 at the earliest.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are, of course, world famous for their large-scale installations using man-made fabric. Some of the best known examples of their work include The Pont-Neuf Wrapped, Paris, 1975-85; Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83; Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-95; and most recently The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005. Together since the late 1950’s, they have enjoyed an enduring and successful collaboration, both personally and commercially. The question of what their achievement represents artistically, however, remains open.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude first met in Paris in 1958, when he was commissioned to do a portrait of her mother. Both were born on June 13, 1935, he to an industrialist family as Christo Javacheff in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, and she as Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon in Casablanca to a French military family. Educated in France and Switzerland, Jeanne-Claude received a baccalaureat in Latin and philosophy from the University of Tunis in 1952. Christo studied at the Fine Arts Academy in Sofia, Bulgaria, from 1953 to 1956 and spent a semester at the Vienna Fine Arts Academy in 1957. But it was after his arrival in Paris that his artistic career really began.

His initial successes came with such small-scale works as Package 1958, made of fabric, lacquer, and rope, and Empaquetage 1958, made of paper, rope, and lacquer. These were followed by larger works, including Wrapped Oil Barrels 1958-59, an arrangement of eighteen oil barrels with fabric, enamel paint, and steel wire; Wrapped Night Table 1960, composed of fabric, rope, twine, and a wooden table; and Wrapped Vespa 1963-64, made of ropes, polyethylene, and a motor scooter. At about this same time he and Jeanne-Claude also produced their first temporary outdoor environmental works: Dockside Packages, Cologne Harbor, 1961, which made use of several stacks of oil barrels and large rolls of industrial paper, tarpaulins, and ropes; and Wall of Barrels, Iron Curtain, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1962, a barricade consisting of 240 oil barrels that closed the street for eight hours, obstructing traffic on the city’s Left Bank.

These early works were done in a spirit in tune with the times, partaking of the various impulses of the then still emerging trends of conceptual, installation, environmental, and “guerrilla” art. The impulses themselves derived their artistic validity from the early-20th-century movement known as Dada, whose influence continues down to today.2 Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s great success is in large part due to their being in touch with the sensibility of their age, and of being in touch with it in a distinctly positive, friendly way. There is no animus in the work for which they are best known, nothing negative or depressing. Their ideas for their work radiate good will, good intentions, and a touching, almost childlike, sincerity. This quality, along with their unique conceptions, sets their work apart from a good deal that is unpleasant or offensive in contemporary art.



But their mature work, and the experience of seeing the objects in the show at the Phillips Collection, also provoke thoughts about the question, what is art?—a question that few have lately seemed interested in asking. Discussions of the achievements of Christo and Jeanne-Claude tend, perhaps not surprisingly, to be somewhat vague. Jonathan Fineberg, a professor of art history at the University of Illinois, proposes in his contribution to the catalogue of Over the River that the very impermanence of the works—typically, the installations are put up for only a period of two weeks—defines their artistic nature. He writes that “[t]alking to Christo fundamentally changed my sense of time with his embrace of evanescence.” He recounts how Christo “described a beautiful image of the tent cities of the Tibetan nomads: ‘walking on the hills’ they would ‘stop late afternoon’ and ‘erect their fabric tents’ and by morning they were gone.” It is this kind of fleetingness, writes Fineberg, that allows the couple’s works to have their “greatest impact” and then “to take their place in the dialectic of memory.”

The social historian Simon Schama, in his own catalogue essay, makes a similar point, writing that “the wrapping of the Reichstag, at first sight a swaddling of historical memory, ended up delivering more force to that memory through a tension between binding and billowing, concealment and revelation.” Schama also tries to invest Over the River with a weighty political meaning:

It was the river courses, mapped and surveyed in the 19th century, which “opened” the [American] continent to imperial penetration and possession. Traces of that drive survive along the Arkansas in the railroad tracks running parallel to its watercourse. But the tracks will be used by the artists’ workers to transport the materials that will support the fabric canopy. The engineering of mastery will be hijacked, for a brief span, for the construction of delight.

If Schama’s glosses seem a bit fevered, they are also at odds with Christo’s own view of his work’s essential contemporaneity. “I don’t believe any work of art exists outside of its prime time,” Fineberg quotes him as saying—that “prime time” being “when the artist like to do it, when the social, political, economic times fit together.”

This brings us to the most widely accepted view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work, namely, that its primary purpose and effect is to raise our awareness of our relationship to the environment. The press release for Over the River, quoting the museum’s director, states: “For more than 40 years, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects have transcended the traditional boundaries of art, profoundly shaping the way in which we see and experience our environment.” The first part of that sentence is undoubtedly true, but the second part is left unexplained, leaving us to wonder how, exactly, their work has accomplished such a large transformation.

The artists’ own claims on behalf of their work are couched in largely aesthetic terms. A section on their website titled “Reading the Artworks” explains that their “temporary large-scale environmental works (both urban and rural environments) have elements of painting, sculpture, architecture, and urban planning.” They then give some specific examples of what they mean: Surrounded Islands, which consisted of 6.5 million square feet of pink woven polypropylene floating fabric, “could be seen as giant flat paintings (shaped canvases).” The Pont-Neuf Wrapped, made up of 454,178 square feet of woven polyamide fabric and 42,900 feet of rope, “could be seen as a very large sculpture, in a traditional sense of antique folds and draperies, however the bridge, while wrapped, remained a bridge, a piece of architecture.” And so forth. The artists then add an important point: “Nobody discusses a painting before it has been painted. . . . But . . . [o]ur projects are discussed and argued about, pro and con, before they are realized.” And another “important difference”: “we are our own sponsors and we pay for our works of art with our own money, never accepting any grants nor sponsors.”

And they have spent quite a lot: about $15 million on Wrapped Reichstag, $26 million on The Umbrellas, Japan-USA, 1984-91 (composed of 1,340 blue umbrellas in Ibaraki, Japan, and 1,760 yellow umbrellas in California, each of which was 19 feet, 8 inches in height and 28 feet, 6 inches in diameter), and $21 million on The Gates, just to cite some of the bigger-ticket items. The upcoming Over the River will cost an estimated $40 million. The extremely high cost of these works is a result of the fact that they are essentially engineering projects. For this reason, the exhibit at the Phillips is not a display of art as that phrase is usually understood. Rather, it is a presentation of a documentary record of the artists’ creative process, of their negotiations with the communities and institutions that will be affected by their work, of the results of various studies and tests, and of the final plans for bringing Over the River into being. It is, in short, a record of the process for effecting—Simon Schama’s hijacking metaphor notwithstanding—a temporary mastery over the forces of nature.

The force of this conquering, yet extremely well-mannered, impulse is brought home by the voluminous and highly technical engineering studies and extensive topographical surveys; by the photographs of the countless meetings Christo and Jeanne-Claude have had over the past decade and a half with the numerous people involved in the project; and by the presence of the kind of materials that will be used for Over the River, including a very large anchor, a steel cable, and a sample of the silvery man-made fabric they will be used to support.

The most artistic part of the exhibition—Christo’s preparatory drawings—likewise confirms the character of the work. These drawings show, from multiple angles and directions, how the sections of fabric will appear once they are suspended, canopy-like, across the Arkansas River. Some of the color drawings in pencil and pastel are notable for their sensitive rendering of the effects of the hot unbroken sunlight on the landscape of the Southwest; even some of the largely black and white drawings are striking in this regard. Most, however, do not stand alone but have attached to them a topographical rendering of the area depicted, and sometimes a photograph of it as well, additions intended to create of the whole a collage.

Unfortunately, since the several elements do not really mesh, the aesthetic result is less than successful. The overall impression is, in fact, of drawings or pictures that look like what they actually are and were intended to be: unusually realized designs for a construction site. As such, if they are a reminder of anything, it is of the basic need, if you want to build something outdoors, to control the potentially destructive effects of the environment.



Such control is, of course, necessary to achieve the results that have won so much acclaim. Jay Gates, a former director of the Phillips Collection, writes in his foreword to the catalogue that the “‘gentle disturbances’ between earth and sky created by Christo and Jeanne-Claude . . . have transformed landscapes into dramatic art installations, incorporating fabric with urban and rural forms, redefining our sense of our environment in magical and unforgettable ways.” As a description of the work, this is largely unobjectionable. But much the same language could be used to describe any number of everyday encounters with the environment. Indeed, Gates himself adds that the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude is “informed . . . by a belief in the inseparability of art and life.”

This, I think, is the key point about their work. For, in truth, art and life are not inseparable, and to act as if they are is to risk a confusion that ultimately diminishes both. The distinction was sharply made by Henri Matisse who, when someone complained that one of his pictures did not look like any woman he had ever seen, replied, “It’s not a woman, it’s a painting.” The purpose of art is not to replicate experience (although that is the idea that has animated much of contemporary art for some time) but, like literature or music, to help us make sense of our experience and enrich our appreciation of life by enabling individual creative expression in socially accessible forms.

In brief, there must be some basis on which to distinguish the experience of everyday life from the experience of art. I believe Christo and Jeanne-Claude recognize this, which is why they strenuously deny that what they do is “conceptual” art and insist on the primacy and integrity of their temporary creations. But to say, as they do, that their work “could be seen as” a painting or a sculpture is to attempt to define it as serious or important art on the basis of little more than a metaphor.

There is every reason, moreover, to take Christo and Jeanne-Claude at their word when they say that they create their work only for themselves. Sharing the process by which they produce these large-scale pieces has, for them, a much higher priority than sharing the completed works themselves. This basically reverses the traditional approach to making art, as well as the usual relationship between an artist and his work and between that work and the public at large.

Traditionally, one of the most important issues for an artist was to use a process and materials in ways that would insure that the finished work lasted. His goal was to create a work that would and could be shared, not only with his contemporaries but with future generations. And having such an intention in mind gave to his efforts a gravity of purpose that played no small role in achieving a result worth preserving and sharing. Indeed, the conservation of great works of art, along with works that are not so great, has long been one of the primary tasks of museums, and it is the accumulation of durable and preservable works that has come to comprise our enduring artistic heritage.

Art that is temporary is, by definition, something that is not going to be shared, or contemplated, studied, and appreciated, in the future; nor will it be part of an ongoing cultural heritage except as something future generations will read about or look at photographs of. Perhaps this is one reason why Christo and Jeanne-Claude, or others, have seen to it that there is a vast documentary record of their activities, including nearly a dozen films about many of their biggest projects.

In addition to providing a historical record of works that will never again be seen, the films—there were nearly 150 scheduled screenings of them at the Phillips in November and December—call attention to the self-dramatizing nature of these endeavors. To spend seventeen years preparing a work creates a certain sense of anticipation—of very public anticipation, given the nature of the effort involved—and to remove the work after its brief eruption into life creates a drama about the artists themselves, about their performance, a drama in which the temporary object ends up playing the role of a curiosity. The focus is on what the artists have done, not on what they have made, and it is hard to see, given the structure of these projects, how it could be otherwise.



Periodically making a splash in this way has certainly been memorable, but one of the oddities about the pair’s not creating permanent completed works is that what will endure are Christo’s preparatory drawings. These drawings thus function something like contemporary relics, remnants of works that are now “lost.” The approach has proved extraordinarily successful, since it is reportedly largely through the sale of Christo’s drawings and early artworks that he and Jeanne-Claude have been able to finance their multi-million dollar projects. But perhaps it is a concern about their legacy, and how it will endure, that accounts in part for their desire to do at least one very large permanent work.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s next planned work is called The Mastaba, Project for the United Arab Emirates. According to the artists, it will be made of approximately 410,000 stacked oil barrels, with “an overall surfacing of 55-gallon stainless steel oil barrels of various bright colors. . . . Hundreds of bright colors, as enchanting as Islamic mosaics, will give a constantly changing visual experience according to the time of the day and the quality of the light.” Moreover, “[t]he grandeur and vastness of the land will be reflected in the dimensions of the Mastaba,” which will be 492 feet high, 738 feet deep, and 984 feet wide. It will have two vertical sides, two slanted sides, and a flat top.

There are further details of the artists’ design: “Palm trees, eucalyptus trees, thorn trees, and other shrubbery will be planted around the Mastaba, at a distance, as a windbreak, to minimize the force of the sand and windstorms”; the “area adjacent to the walkways approaching the Mastaba will be like an oasis with flowers and grass”; and “[i]n a distant area, there could be a complex with parking facilities, a worship room, rest areas for the public, and lodging for the curator, the maintenance personnel, and the guardians.”

This work was first conceived in 1977, so it has been on the artists’ mind for quite some time and they have clearly given it a good deal of thought. Its two most notable characteristics are its size and the fact that it is intended, if the UAE agrees to pay for it, to be permanent. As Christo and Jeanne-Claude put it, although they have already spent over a million dollars on planning, feasibility studies, and preliminary designs, “It is indeed logical to expect that the construction of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Mastaba of the UAE can only be financed by the ruler if he wishes to have an option to build and take care of the maintenance of a structure which is larger and taller than the largest pyramid in Giza, Egypt.”

No reference is made in all this to the meaning associated with the real pyramids, which are symbols both of great mastery and of a rather strong belief in immortality. But even while insisting that their proposed creation will be “a work of art whose only purpose is to be itself,” Christo and Jeanne-Claude do not shy away from calling it what it would actually be—namely, a “monument.” The contradiction is worth pondering, for it says a good deal about the conundrums of contemporary art.


1 The exhibit will reopen on February 12 at the Fondation de l’Hermitage, Lausanne, Switzerland, and will travel to the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center in 2011.

2 Dada itself was originally intended to be an anti-art critique, but its chief proponent, Marcel Duchamp, could not have imagined how his “found” art objects—including most famously a urinal and a bicycle wheel—would eventually be received; the fact that they ended up being taken seriously has had rather large consequences for the subsequent history of art.

About the Author

Steven C. Munson’s contributions to COMMENTARY include “David Smith’s Vision” (May 2006) and “Inside the New MOMA” (February 2005).

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