In his New York Times obituary for Jeanne-Claude, William Grimes felt compelled to include this caveat: "Some critics dismissed their work as a repetitive series of stunts devoid of intellectual content." I think it is a mistake to call Jeanne-Claude an "artist." She was something far more important to the culture of our times: a shameless, publicity-mad self-promoter determined to wrap the world in the small conceit of a puckish little man with a genius for drawing.
Jeanne-Claude was Colonel Tom Parker to Christo’s Elvis. The true genius of Jeanne-Claude was not a dull environmentally transgressive piece of ugliness like The Gates or giant umbrellas which killed people, but a marketing sense for Christo ephemera that rivaled Colonel Parker’s production of Elvis buttons, scarves, dolls and lunches. I doubt that there is a corporate office in New York which doesn’t have a meticulously rendered architectural drawing of a Christo project on its walls.
Jeanne-Claude proudly boasted that she and her husband never took a dime of nonprofit money. What they did do, however, was expertly manipulate the very same people who head these nonprofit foundations into participating in the Christos’ own for-profit schemes! Jeanne-Claude commandeered the entire family of legendary political fixer Theodore Kheel to market every splinter of the horrid Gates project into a money machine, with the endorsement of Mayor Mike "Public Art" Bloomberg. She convinced whole countries to uselessly despoil their environmental wonders for a few weeks under tons of plastic, something that would normally lead to fines and arrest!
But, she also did something very dangerous for the art world itself by transforming the nature of public art. The purpose of public art is the illusion of permanence, the comfort of familiarity and the satisfaction of contemplating one thing in one place over a lifetime. Think of the opening of the film Portrait of Jennie, in which Joseph Cotten, playing a failed painter, contemplates the glorious statue of Robert Burns in Central Park. You can still walk over to the park today and enjoy that statue, part of Poets’ Walk, which includes a statue, also, for example, of the forgotten poet Fitz-Greene Halleck.
By making disposability the hallmark of public art, Jeanne-Claude transformed the transient insecurities of her own mortality into the template for today’s public art funds which underwrite the self-satisfactions of the wealthy and manipulate the public into becoming bit players in a spectacle that they are lectured into enjoying. Art appreciation by municipal fiat, as it were. And all that’s left is a lifeless Christo drawing on some corporate wall.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).