Bulgarian-American Sculptor, Photographer, and Conceptual Artist
New York City
Summary of Christo
Christo's early education in Soviet Socialist Realism, and his experience fleeing his home as a refugee of political revolution, informed his career's numerous forays into real-world politics as a primary subject and source of his artmaking. His 35-year collaboration with the artist Jeanne-Claude, and the large-scale site-specific works they co-authored, stand out as his career's greatest achievements. Together, the duo created monumentally-scaled sculptures and installations which often utilized the technique of draping or wrapping large portions of existent landscapes, buildings, and industrial objects with specially engineered fabric. Christo and Jeanne-Claude made works that stand out as some of the most grandiose, ambitious, site-specific art works ever. While they often insisted that the aesthetic properties of their art constituted its primary value, reactions from audiences and critics worldwide have long recognized a broader commentary operating across their work, and themes ranging from environmental degradation, to the vexed history of the 20th century and the Cold War, to the perseverance of democratic and humanist ideals.
- Christo and Jeanne-Claude's interventions in the natural world and the built environment altered both the physical form and the visual experience of the sites, thereby allowing viewers to perceive and understand the locations with a new appreciation of their formal, energetic, and volumetric qualities.
- The artists' choice to remain intermittently inside and outside the frameworks of legality lends much of their work a built-in aspect of dissent and resistance. It also expands upon and emboldens a long legacy of quasi-legality in art, where art exists in a realm somewhere between the "real" world and fantasy, and affords the art world with distinct privileges as well as restrictions.
- Christo and Jeanne-Claude often worked outside the gallery system, refusing to negotiate sales of drawings and commissions through an art dealer. In this respect, they took a definitive stance on the political and economic infrastructure of the global art market, and set a precedent for artists working outside the system who still cultivated an international level of success.
- Whereas Land Artists usually made a point of blurring the lines of distinction between the art work itself and its natural setting and/or materials, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's art relied on developing high contrast between the engineered, man-made elements and the site's organic characteristics. Their work therefore pushes the envelope of what constitutes site-specific, large-scale installation art, and expands the genre discourse to incorporate controversial themes of industrialization, bureaucratization, and late capitalism.
Biography of Christo
Christo was born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, a small town in the Balkan Mountains. His given name was Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, and his parents were Ivan Vladimir Javacheff, a chemist and a businessman who ran a fabric factory, and Tzveta Dimitrova, a political activist and a secretary at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria. Ivan and Tzveta were socially connected with artists and intellectuals around Gabrovo, and Christo grew up surrounded by progressive ideas and culture. Christo began creating art early on, inspired by his parents' bohemian social circle, and was encouraged by several professors from the Academy of Fine Arts who would frequent the family home's to visit his parents. Politics also shaped his early life, and as a young boy Christo witnessed his birth country's invasion by the Nazis, and later by the Soviets.
Important Art by Christo
Christo and Jeanne-Claude's first collaborations involved wrapping dozens of oil barrels with cloth and rope, and stacking them in layers across public spaces so as to partially or completely block access. Earlier iterations of this site-specific work on Rue Visconti in Paris included a version in the courtyard of Christo's studio, as well as 1961's Stacked Oil Barrels and Dockside Packages, both of which were installed for two weeks on the harbor in Cologne, Germany. Particularly in Wall of Oil Barrels, the artists expanded the scope and scale of the previous works, creating a larger and more impenetrable wall of both wrapped and unwrapped barrels that blockaded a section of a city street. Christo was propelled by the idea of spatially reconfiguring a specific outdoor location with a common, contextually misplaced object, a notion that would play a role in many of his future creations and collaborations with Jeanne-Claude.
The piece utilized 89 barrels, and measured 13.2 feet wide, 2.7 feet deep, and 13.7 feet tall. It took eight hours to assemble. An expression of the artists' views on the disruptive nature of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall, which was then in the process of being built, Wall of Oil Barrels commented on the politics of space, freedom, and mobility under increasingly conservative and divisive governmental policies throughout Europe. Since they installed it without permission, Parisian authorities demanded that the piece be dismantled, but Jeanne-Claude was able to persuade them to allow the work to remain in place for several hours. This monumental work and its brief celebrity as a public nuisance helped Christo and Jeanne-Claude gain early notoriety in Paris.
Oil barrels became an important medium for Christo in 1958. He had previously been utilizing smaller, everyday, affordable objects like beer cans, but the barrels initiated a significant shift towards larger works, while still adhering to a distinct type of sculptural form. Wall of Oil Barrels was Christo's first large scale work, and marked the beginning of the collaborative, massively scaled, site-specific works for which he and Jeanne-Claude would become famous.
Using one million square feet of erosion-control synthetic fabric, 35 miles of polypropylene rope, 25,000 fasteners, threaded studs, and clips, Jeanne-Claude and Christo wrapped 1.5 miles of rocky coast off Little Bay in Sydney, Australia to create Wrapped Coast in the late 1960s. This method of wrapping was something that Christo had experimented with previously, using smaller objects, but this monumental effort became the largest single artwork ever created at the time, surpassing Mount Rushmore. It remained wrapped for ten weeks, beginning October 28, 1969.
The draping of the fabric over the coast helped to re-contextualize and de-familiarize a well-known natural setting, and revealed the essential form and shape of the coast as a discrete object in and of itself. Passersby experienced a shift in their commonplace perspective of the landscape by having limitations - both visual and physical - imposed upon the viewing process. This selective imposition also brought about new and unexpected revelations about the nature of the coastline, particularly its formal and structural qualities as a cohesive object with a distinct shape, substance, and volume.
In the Spring of 1970 Christo and Jeanne-Claude began work on Valley , a 200,200 square foot section of orange, woven nylon fabric that stretched across an entire Colorado valley. The gigantic, crescent-shaped fabric was suspended on a steel cable and anchored to two mountain tops, between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs in the Hogback Mountain Range. It was tied down with 27 ropes, and spread across the valley at a maximum measurement of 1,250 feet wide and 365 feet high.
Valley Curtain was a tremendous feat of engineering and coordination that experienced significant and expensive setbacks. Christo and his team first attempted to install the curtain on October 9, 1971, but a gust of wind caught the fabric and it flew away, ripping on the surrounding rocks and construction equipment. On August 19, 1972 it was at last erected successfully, but it remained intact for only 28 hours, until a wind at over 60 miles per hour threatened to tear through it once more. Workers dismantled the piece shortly thereafter.
For the brief time that it was in place, the bright orange drape slung between the craggy mountains reinvigorated the valley's contours, highlighting its natural flow, rhythm, and volume. Like many of the duo's large-scale environmental works, it brought new perspective to a familiar landscape, and encouraged a refreshed appreciation of the natural world. The bold color of the fabric popped against the bright sky, the muted blue mountains in the distance, and the greenery covering the nearby hills. Few viewers were able to see it live in its short, 28-hour existence, which added to the work's sense of fragility, vulnerability, and urgency, while also stimulating an awareness of the emptiness that accompanied its eventual dismantling. The work was documented extensively in photographs: ultimately, the most prolific medium of earth works, these types of works which are purposely subjected to environmental change, impermanence, and decay.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Christo
- Christo amd Jeanne-Claude: An Authorized BiographyOur PickBy Burt Chernow and Wolfgang Volz
- Christo and Jeanne-Claude: A BiographyBy Burt Chernow, and Wolfgang Volz
- The Gates: Project for Central Park, New York CityBy Christo and Jeanne-Claude
- Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the Vogel CollectionBy Molly Donovan
- ChristoBy David Bourdon
- Christo: Running Fence: Sonoma and Marin Counties, California 1973-76By Calvin Tomkins and David Bourdon
- Christo and Jeanne-Claude: International ProjectsOur PickBy Dieter Ronte
- GatedOur PickBy Perter Schjeldahl / The New Yorker / 2005
- Christo's Wrapped Reichstag: Symbol for the New GermanyOur PickBy Paul Goldberger / The New York Times
- Various NY Times Articles on Christo's Work
- ChristoBy Charles Taylor / Salon / April 11, 2000
- The Real and the RevealedBy Anthony Bond / Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts / 1998
- The Freedom to be Christo and Jeanne-ClaudeBy Albert Elsen / Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts / 1998
- Christo and Jeanne ClaudeOur PickTrailer. Directed by Michael Blackwood
- Christo Wrapped Coast 1969
- The Artists Behind the Gates Christo and Jeanne-Claude
- Current Work: Christo. The Architectural League
- Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado
- Christo's Valley Curtain, by David and Albert Maysles, 1974Our PickNominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short