Jeanne-Claude, Christo’s celebrated wife and collaborator who died at age 74 on Nov. 18, 2009, was a real character. Not only did she abandon her French bourgeois background and marry an artist, but she married a Bulgarian one who spoke almost no French, though his way of saying the word "chérie" to her, a soft breezy whisp of a sound like "sherie," probably helped to weaken the defenses of a spoiled young woman. No doubt she sensed that the thin young fellow with curly long hair, a pretty face and feline charm was worth a gamble. It may also be that, born on the same day and year, those two shared an unusual complicity from the start.
The gamble paid off. Together Jeanne-Claude and Christo brought to life the mammoth-sized projects inside Christo’s head, and together they built an art empire made up of thousands of drawings, collages, photos, films, documents and memorabilia. Her passing was celebrated with considerable pomp and an enviable guest list, with the invited hordes split between the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Met’s auditorium, and the nearby Central Park Boathouse, to listen to music, hear a roster of high-profile speakers, and watch a film celebrating the partnership.
The event was an odd affair, though one that the deceased herself could have masterminded. The first speaker was Mayor Mike Bloomberg, all smiles, harboring a saffron-colored tie; he thanked the Christos for The Gates in Central Park, which he said gave the city joy after the traumas of 9/11, and whose popularity with foreign tourists helped to replenish the city’s coffers. Former Met Museum director Philippe de Montebello noted that the Christos had bookended his own career, exhibiting in 1971 at the Houston MFA (where he was director) and of course in 2005 at the Met, as part of The Gates. The spry 90-year-old art historian Leo Steinberg reminisced about a dinner with the Christos in their early New York days, noting his complicity with Jeanne-Claude as cigarette smokers and getting a laugh by saying that at the time he had his doubts that their marriage would last.
The architecture critic Paul Goldberger said he was with the Christos a day or two before her sudden death from an aneurism. Also among the speakers were John Kaldor, who coordinated the Wrapped Coast Project in Australia, and Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is currently showing documentation on Running Fence. Annie Cohen-Solal, whose book on Leo Castelli I recently reviewed in these pages, represented the French government.
Calvin Tomkins from the New Yorker Magazine won the day with his retelling of a Jeanne-Claude bon mot. Apparently, upon returning from her honeymoon with a man who was not Christo, Jeanne-Claude realized her mistake, and got a locksmith to come immediately and change the lock to their new apartment. Having quickly called Christo to her side (she knew him and had befriended him when he had visited her home to make her mother’s portrait), the young bride waited for the new if already discarded husband to come home from work.
Failing to open the door with his key, the poor guy started knocking on the front door. At which point, Jeanne-Claude approached from her side and screamed, "Your key does not fit my lock!" And thus began her life with Christo. Probably apocryphal like many of the anecdotes and jokes told by Jeanne-Claude over the years, the story does fit in with her temperament, her humor and her ruthlessness, which some would more favorably call her guts.
Christo spoke not a word at the memorial, at least not to the audience, nor did his son Cyril, nor any relative.
The film by Antonio Ferrera assembled from clips dating back to 1965 did evoke the closeness of their partnership. Its mikes and cameras were relentless in following the couple everywhere they went, so much so that you almost expected that sooner or later you’d see them in bed together, assuming there was time for romance in their busy life. At the beginning and the end of the ceremony, musicians performed Mozart’s clarinet quintet in A Major. Jeanne-Claude liked Mozart and apparently believed that listening to Mozart raises one’s I.Q. The audience applauded after each speaker, and after the music.
I watched the event from the Boathouse, where we were rewarded with drinks and hors d’oeuvre plus a picture book of an ever-smiling Jeanne-Claude at various epochs and hair colors. The book came in a sackcloth bag with an image of a young, starry-eyed Jeanne-Claude looking out through plastic wrapping and cord, a staple of Christo’s early works. A brilliant adieu, and a touching one.
I met Jeanne-Claude and Christo in New York in the late 1960s, about the same time as I met Arman, through the French critic Pierre Restany. Both Christo and Arman had been discovered by Restany and labeled "Nouveaux Réalistes" along with César, Tinguely and others. Like the early Pop artists here, the Nouveaux Réalistes appropriated everyday objects, new and old. Christo did not follow this model exactly, of course, but he did conceal nameless things under wrap and string as if to suggest that l’habit fait le moine (clothes make the man) or, in his case, it is the wrapping not the object that constructs value, a lesson he mastered on a grand scale later on.
If the Christos and I shared anything, it was our friendship with Restany and also our status as French-speaking newcomers on the New York art scene. I remember a dinner I cooked in those early days to which they came armed with the traditional bottle of wine. In their case, the bottle was a double-sized magnum of fine champagne. I remember a dinner at their place in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s whose guest list showed how quickly they had penetrated the New York art world. I vaguely remember the presence of Leo Steinberg that evening.
I saw barely one shot of Restany in the film shown at the memorial, though Restany did launch their career in Paris. Something happened that Jeanne-Claude did not like. She was terrifyingly demanding and took you to task if you called the Central Park Gates "orange" rather than "saffron," if you misidentified the exact name of the project’s fabric, if you used the word "volunteers" for "assistants" and, of course, if your take on the work displeased her. (A book was made out of a list of her complaints.) In short she aimed to take control of the writers as if they were her employees. Small wonder there were few art critics’ faces at the memorial. To my left was a young dealer from Colorado, and to my right a woman from San Francisco who had helped them in some capacity at the time of Running Fence. I caught sight of Dennis Oppenheim.
As for the cause of her eventual disapproval of Restany, I seems that after he had attended a few unveilings, he said to them in a half-drunken jest to stop making these costly projects, it was a waste of money, the drawings spoke for themselves. In their later and more glamorous years, they dissociated themselves not only from Restany but also rejected the idea they had ever been part of Le Nouveau Réalisme. I suppose Jeanne-Claude’s memorial would not have so reeked of fame, wealth and power, had they taken Restany’s advice.
Shortly after Christo and Jeanne-Claude had completed Wrapped Coast, Little Bay in 1969 in Australia, the director of the Maison Française of Columbia University asked me to organize a fundraising afternoon at their studio on Howard Street. Sitot dit, sitot fait. The event was a success, but I ran into trouble. As part of my presentation, I dared to suggest that a formal connection could be made between the art of Jackson Pollock and Wrapped Coast, in appearance if not in intention. The very notion of a formalist interpretation of Wrapped Coast was anathema; I was seriously rebuked by Christo for even mentioning the American artist in this context.
Even so, soon after my visit with the Columbia U. group, I received from Jeanne-Claude the poster of a wrapped painting that had intrigued me in their studio. It showed the front side of the package on one side of the poster and the back of it on the reverse side. The poster bears an uncanny resemblance to the image imprinted on the sackcloth bag that was distributed at the memorial, minus the image of Jeanne-Claude’s face.
I had quite forgotten the visit to Christo’s studio and the back and forth between us on the subject of Wrapped Coast when, during the spring when Jeanne-Claude and Christo were working on Running Fence -- his project through Sonoma and Marin counties in northern California -- they invited me to visit the site and see for myself the primary role of process in their art. I flew with Christo, and rejoined Jeanne-Claude, busy with engineers, contractors, lawyers and the like in a shack in the middle of nowhere.
The intensity, energy, arguments, tension, breathless expectation, with phones ringing, Christo’s displays of impatience and Jeanne-Claude’s more sober behavior was in itself a performance. The comparison that came to mind was Cape Canaveral before a launch. Except that when you thought about what was causing all this tension and commotion, it was not a technological miracle like sending people into space, it was about how rectangles of white cloth would quietly unfurl from their mooring. From this point of view, all the excitement inside the shack seemed pretty ludicrous.
Fortunately there was more to come in the course of my visit. I attended a tumultuous town meeting and heard local artists speak against the project while local farmers defended it, I crisscrossed the farmland that Running Fence would go through, was introduced to friendly farmers, saw lots of sheep grazing on pale green grass, and a few dead ones too. I saw the stretch of ocean coast where Running Fence would slowly plunge and disappear. All of it in perfect weather. I had a ball.
Upon my return, I offered to document my trip for the Atlantic Monthly. Sure enough, they were interested. I wrote the piece. It was accepted under the proviso that I find out more about the financing of Running Fence. I phoned Jeanne-Claude with this request, she told me to get in touch with their accountant. I did and he abruptly put an end to our phone conversation. The piece came out anyway, and it has a lot of information on that subject. See "A Sublime Folly, Christo’s Running Fence," in the Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1976, pp. 90-96.
Although I no longer had much to do with them in their most successful years, they did come to my book parties, and sent me some of the books of their projects. When, in 2002, I organized a memorial for Pierre Restany and invited them, they replied that no, they would not come, yet showed up. When I learned that Jeanne-Claude had suddenly died, I stopped by their loft on Howard Street and left three modest orange flowers from the neighborhood Korean market at the door. In return, I received a form letter of thanks and the announcement of a memorial at a date still to be fixed.
Christo, who in recent years was made to share authorship of the large-scale projects with Jeanne-Claude, is now alone to decide what his next professional and personal step will be. His wife’s imprint on the unfolding of the memorial suggests that the woman who inspired both envy and deprecation will probably accompany Christo’s thinking and actions for as long as he lives.
The memorial ceremony can be watched in full on Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s website.
MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).