How the Visionary Artist Christo (RIP) Changed the Way We See the World

Hus­band and wife team Chris­to and Jeanne-Claude pro­duced what is arguably the most grandiose body of work in mod­ern his­to­ry. Their tem­po­rary mon­u­ments to the very idea of huge­ness were view­able from space and impos­si­ble to ignore on the ground: Entire islands wrapped in miles of pink fab­ric. Gar­gan­tu­an yel­low and blue umbrel­las placed up and down the coasts of Cal­i­for­nia and Japan. The Reich­stag bun­dled up in white fab­ric like a mas­sive, shiny Christ­mas gift.

These projects left an indeli­ble impres­sion on mil­lions not only in the months after their unveil­ing, but decades lat­er. The icon­ic sites the two artists trans­formed always bear the mem­o­ry of hav­ing once served as a can­vas for their cre­ations.

After remov­ing the wrap­ping from the Bis­cayne Bay islands, a project he called “my Water Lilies” in hon­or of Claude Mon­et,” Chris­to remarked that Sur­round­ed Islands lived on, “in the mind of the peo­ple.” So too will Chris­to live on—remembered by mil­lions as an artist who did things no one else would ever have con­ceived of, much less car­ried out.

The artist, who passed away from nat­ur­al caus­es at age 84 yes­ter­day, seemed to savor the con­tro­ver­sy and bewil­der­ment that met his incred­i­bly labor-inten­sive out­door sculp­tures. “If there are ques­tions, if there’s a pub­lic out­cry,” he said of their 2005 Cen­tral Park instal­la­tion The Gates, “we know how the pub­lic can be angry at art, which I think is fan­tas­tic.” I remem­ber walk­ing through The Gates when it debuted and think­ing, as most every­one does at some point in response to his mas­sive out­door instal­la­tions, “but, why?”

The effect was unde­ni­ably strik­ing, hun­dreds of saf­fron flags wav­ing between rec­tan­gu­lar steel arch­ways. Spring bloomed around the rows of gates that twist­ed around the Park’s foot­paths, 7,503 gates in all. From a short dis­tance away from the park, The Gates could be breath­tak­ing. Up close, it could be crowd­ed and obtru­sive, as mass­es of tourists and locals made their way through the gaunt­let of orange steel struc­tures.

Hard­ly does it occur to us in muse­ums to ask why the art exists. We enter with lofty, ready­made ideas about its val­ue and impor­tance. But we were nev­er giv­en scripts to make sense of Christo’s whim­si­cal intru­sions into the land­scape. Instead, he and Jeanne-Claude invent­ed new forms and new venues for art, and made the mul­ti-year process of plan­ning and build­ing each work from scratch a part of the work itself.

That process includ­ed lob­by­ing leg­is­la­tures and bureau­cra­cies, sketch­ing and plan­ning, and coor­di­nat­ing with thou­sands who installed and removed the fin­ished prod­ucts. Each Chris­to and Jeanne-Claude cre­ation seemed more osten­ta­tious than the last. “His grand projects,” writes William Grimes at The New York Times, “often decades in the mak­ing and all of them tem­po­rary, required the coop­er­a­tion of dozens, some­times hun­dreds, of landown­ers, gov­ern­ment offi­cials, judges, envi­ron­men­tal groups, local res­i­dents, engi­neers and work­ers, many of whom had lit­tle inter­est in art and a deep reluc­tance to see their lives and their sur­round­ings dis­rupt­ed by an eccen­tric vision­ary.”

And yet, “again and again, Chris­to pre­vailed, through per­sis­tence, charm and a child­like belief that even­tu­al­ly every­one would see things the way he did.” This meant that every­one who had to live with Christo’s cre­ations in their back­yards had to see things his way too, for as long as the pub­lic art exist­ed. Chris­to “remained sto­ic in the face of mount­ing crit­i­cism,” as Alex Green­berg­er at Art­news puts it. Asso­ci­at­ed ear­ly with Sit­u­a­tion­ism and France’s Nou­veau Réal­isme move­ment, the artist shared the lat­ter group’s goal of dis­cov­er­ing “new ways of per­ceiv­ing the real” and the for­mer movement’s com­mit­ment to spec­ta­cle as a means of mass dis­rup­tion.

In the short video intro­duc­tions to some of Chris­to and Jean-Claude’s most famous works here, you can see how the two revealed new real­i­ties to the world, dri­ving up tourism while spurn­ing cor­po­rate dol­lars. Instead, the artists financed their own projects by sell­ing off the draw­ings and plans used to con­ceive them. Their oper­a­tion was a self-sus­tain­ing enti­ty, a thriv­ing, suc­cess­ful com­pa­ny of its own. What they made were “beau­ti­ful things,” the artist said, “unbe­liev­ably use­less, total­ly unnec­es­sary,” and also total­ly inspir­ing, infu­ri­at­ing, and unfor­get­table.

“Chris­to lived his life to the fullest,” a state­ment released by his office reads, “not only dream­ing up what seemed impos­si­ble but real­iz­ing it. Chris­to and Jeanne-Claude’s art­work brought peo­ple togeth­er in shared expe­ri­ences across the globe, and their work lives on in our hearts and mem­o­ries.” Chris­to hasn’t fin­ished with us yet. The artist died while in the final plan­ning stages of what will be his final work, L’Arc de Tri­om­phe, Wrapped (Project for Paris, Place de l’Étoile – Charles de Gaulle), first con­ceived in 1962. That project, which will swad­dle Paris’s Arc de Tri­om­phe in 269,097 feet of fab­ric, is still expect­ed to debut in 2021.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cli­mate Change Gets Strik­ing­ly Visu­al­ized by a Scot­tish Art Instal­la­tion

“The Artist Project” Reveals What 127 Influ­en­tial Artists See When They Look at Art: An Acclaimed Video Series from The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art

This Huge Crash­ing Wave in a Seoul Aquar­i­um Is Actu­al­ly a Gigan­tic Opti­cal Illu­sion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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