Thursday, October 27, 2011

Christo - Mr. Wrapper - seeking to suspend fabric panels over miles of Arkansas River

By Nancy T. Lu
Christo, ever famous for his unique wrapping art, has spent more than half his lifetime trying to explain that he is more than just “Mr. Wrapper.”

What is the Bulgarian-born Christo wrapping next? This question inevitably pops up whenever Christo turns up in a city on any continent.

In progress right now is “Over the River,” his project for the Arkansas River in Colorado. This was started with his French wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude in 1992. But she is no longer around to see to its completion with him. She passed away in November 2009.

The 76-year-old Christo, however, is determined to see through this project. His target exhibition time for “Over the River” is August 2014. After two weeks, it will become just another beautiful memory.

Christo has this idea of suspending luminous fabric panels 10 to 23 feet above the water along a 5.9-mile stretch of the Arkansas River. He has this mindset to hurdle the challenges of the bridges, rocks, trees and bushes along the river,

“Over the River” has triggered expected debates among residents and property owners in the area. But at least there is progress on this environmental art project. This month (October 2011), Christo received from the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners the approval for two leases needed to execute the “Over the River” installation art and to generate income to develop a wildlife corridor to benefit schools and local bighorn sheep population. Christo, however, will still need to work on more permits to realize his Arkansas River project.

Christo’s reputation has been built over decades by a number of unforgettable projects which entailed covering buildings, a bridge or even islands. His art has called for long periods of preparation and realization. Over lunch during his second Taipei visit years ago, he spoke of a few projects still in the process of completion after 10 years or even longer. Included then were “The Umbrellas” - started in 1984 and realized in 1991 - covering about 12 miles in Japan and 16 miles in the United States - as well as the “Wrapped Reichstag” in Berlin - first proposed in 1972 and finally done in 1995.

Christo, whenever possible, tries to clarify to interested listeners that each project is not to be taken just at face value. He plays with an idea in different dimensions, including political. As an artist who was born and raised in a communist country, he can not deny the influence of his past.

The wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin had been his obsession for 23 years, he said. Before the reunification of East and West Germany, he saw the significance of the former seat of the German Parliament in ideological, economic and political dimensions.

The building stood for years in an area under the jurisdiction of the American, French, British and Soviet forces in Berlin. Christo thought that the carrying out of his unique plan for the landmark was not likely to happen overnight. The creative process would be left hanging, he was aware. Thrice he was denied permission to realize his vision, according to Christo back in December 1988.

But Christo would keep trying even if it would mean that he would have to live dangerously. The artist gave the impression of thriving in a sense of insecurity. He and his wife found themselves writing to all the 662 members of the Parliament to explain the Reichstag project and to finally win their approval.

When Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon, was still around, Christo knew already how it was to live a life on an emotional rollercoaster. He first met her when he went to do a portrait of her mother in Paris.

According to his wife and manager, Christo for 25 years did not leave the home he first moved into when he arrived and settled down in New York in 1963. The big loft on the 5th floor of a building without elevator was his atelier. His home was on the 4th floor of the same address.

When Christo’s retrospective exhibition came to Taipei upon the invitation of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, the collection consisted of 119 works on loan from the Rothschild Bank AG Zurich. Project models, drawings and study plans made up the greater part of the exhibition. Big photographs served as records of completed projects. There were three displays from Christo’s personal collection: “Wrapped Oil Barrels (1958-1959), “Wrapped Table and Wrapped Chair” and “Store Front (1964).”

Christo gets asked why he chooses to create art that is temporary. Islands covered with special fabrics are returned to their original state. The Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, reverts to its undraped look. Christo smiled and acquiesced to the remark of his wife years ago: “His art lives. It lasts forever.”

Christo makes such an impact on his viewing public through his art so that the image of what they have seen remains imbedded in their minds long after traces have been removed.

At the same time, said Christo, the vulnerable character of his art is an essential part of his creative perception. The temporary existence of his works calls for them to be seen. Like a nomadic tribe which builds a village overnight and then pulls out just as quickly in a desert, Christo goes about his creative pursuits that are unique, sublime experiences.

“The Gates,” his project for New York’s Central Park, featured 11,000 saffron fabrics hanging from horizontal steel bars and flapping along 26 miles of park walkways in the autumn of 2005. New Yorkers experienced “The Gates” – art that was two decades in the making and involving 7,500 frames or structures in all – for 14 days.

Christo also pointed out that he has no recipe on art creation to share with the public. The reason that moves him to channel his creative energy into a project is “purely autobiographical.” Back in 1962, he found a way to block off Rue Visconti in Paris and called it “Iron Curtain – Wall of Oil Barrels.”

Christo is also particular about experimenting only with what has not been tried. After wrapping Pont Neuf in Paris, he has refused to wrap another bridge. Each project, finished or unfinished, must remain unique, according to him.

He also raised another point: his art can neither be bought nor commercialized. Each project is not just a painting or a sculpture. Christo also never accepted sponsors for his art projects. In short, he paid for his ideas’ implementation out of his own pocket. The plans and drawings were what he sold to collectors, notably banks and museums, to finance his art creation.

The monumental scale of this artist’s works makes him stand in a class all by himself. As he engages himself in a project, he is full of expectations. So are people whose lives he touches.

When Christo did “Running Fence” on private properties of 59 ranchers in an area north of San Francisco, California, he spent 11 months convincing the people concerned to allow him to make 165,000 yards of heavy woven white nylon fabric spread out across their lands.

A New York Times journalist one day asked one of the ranchers if he understood what “Running Fence” was all about. The fellow pointed to a painting of a sunset out on a bay on the wall and remarked: “Here everything is make-believe.” He next looked out his window and said: “Outside are the wind, the fence and real life.”

Those who have had the privilege to see his retrospective exhibition are more likely to understand that Christo is not going to just wrap a most readily recognized landmark upon his arrival in a city in any part of the world. He as an artist takes his time to realize an ambitious design and project.

The artist born Christo Javacheff began his career by wrapping smaller packages. He wrapped trees, a car and even a woman before tackling monumental projects like buildings, coastline and even islands. “The Umbrellas” was something else. He attempted to investigate the different behaviors of people under the umbrellas in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, and in Kern Counties, California, the United States.

Exciting ideas just keep flowing out of Christo’s mind. He gets all wrapped up in his creative thoughts until exhibition time before a watching world. The results are each time visually startling and unforgettable.


  1. It was very pleasant to visit your Christo page today. I've been a fan of his since the cusp of 1962/3 when I spent some very cold days in Paris and saw some of his early projects in a Biennale exhibition at a time when he was wrapping objects as small as typewriters..
    Many many years later, when I lived in New York City we were relatively speaking neighbours and I always had a hankering to have some contact with him but in the end I left without meeting him. However shortly before I escaped to Vermont with my young daughter I had a client at my Shiatsu practice in Soho who worked with/for Christo. I told her how much I'd admired him for almost 30 years and she asked me to stay in touch and let her know where I was, which I did.
    One day, to my astonishment, a package arrived from NY by mail containing 2 signed prints of the Umbrellas project. These were finaly left behind in Massachussets at a tea warehouse with a good friend and they were rescued not so long ago by my daughter who curently has them on her wall in NYC. When I talked to her a few days ago and we were discussing her forthcoming visit to the Czech Republic where I now hang my hat we discussed that she would bring them with her and there are few things that could delight me more.
    Christo is one of a kind - and to think that today I was actually just checking that he was still with us :) Michal Pober

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the unforgettable Christo. Nancy T. Lu