Larger than life

“Each project is like an expedition,” says Christo. “This is why it’s so exciting.” Really, every aspect of the shared life of husband and wife artist team Christo and Jeanne-Claude reads like an adventure, from their identical birthdates to their fated meeting (Christo was hired to paint a portrait of Jeanne-Claude’s mother).

Artists Jeanne-Claude and Christo. Photo by Wolfgang Volz, copyright 2005.

Known for their massive fabric installations, the two weren’t acknowledged as separate entities until 1994, instead working under the collective name Christo.

They’ve completed such monumental works as 1969’s Wrapped Coast in Little Bay, Australia (1.5 miles of cliff-lined shore was draped in a million square feet of erosion-control fabric); the 1972 installation Valley Curtain in Rifle, Colorado (142,000 square feet of orange nylon was suspended between two slopes in the Hogback Mountain Range); 1985’s Pont Neuf Wrapped in Paris, France (454,178 square feet of sandstone-colored polyamide fabric was used to cloak the sidewalks, curbs, streetlamps, parapets, sides and vaults of the famed bridge, without hindering traffic flow) and the 2005 installation The Gates in New York City’s Central Park (7,503 saffron-colored fabric panels were spaced at 12-foot intervals throughout the park).

“The key is that the work of art inherits everything which is inherent to that space,” explains Jeanne-Claude. Both she and Christo eschew a last name.

The idea of art inheriting what is inherent has much to do with Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s use of space for their temporary-but-staggering work.

Each of the major works takes years—often decades—to plan, organize and carry out. The Gates was first envisioned in 1979, only to be removed (and completely recycled) in a matter of days. And, as meticulously as Christo and Jeanne-Claude engineer each artistic endeavor, the finished works still turn up surprises.

The Umbrellas had a base that was 7-by-7 feet and a height that you [could] sit on,” Christo recalls of the 1991 project The Umbrellas, Japan-U.S.A.. The completed exhibition included 3,100 umbrellas displayed along two inland valleys, one in Ibaraki, Japan; the other 60 miles north of Los Angeles, Calif.

According to Christo, the umbrellas were close enough to the road for vehicles to pass underneath. That drew visitors—the purpose of the installation—but the American and Japanese viewers responded differently. In California: “They were putting blankets at the base of the umbrellas and they were picnicking.” In Japan: “They were also picnicking, but removing their shoes before walking on the base of the umbrellas.” As such, Umbrellas took on a life of its own, post-completion.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay and Miami. 1980-1983. Photo by Wolfgang Volz, copyright 1983.

But, even as the artists learn from each work, they never repeat an endeavor. “Each project is a unique image, meaning that we do not know how to do that work,” Christo explains. The unknown is tempered with tireless research, drawings, a team of engineers and life-sized tests. Still, Christo points out, “There is no way to visualize how the real things will look.”

An early test (20 years before the final result) for The Gates showed Christo and Jeanne-Claude that they’d need to use square poles rather than round. A test for Running Fence revealed that the initial fabric choice—an inexpensive and desirably shiny fiberglass—couldn’t withstand high wind gusts.

Though they adamantly refuse sponsors (they use only their own money) it seems that the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude is indeed a case of the whole being greater than then sum of its parts. As they once worked under a shared name, they continue to realize a shared vision.

Both now in their 70s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s list of works in progress is pared down to two remaining undertakings: Over The River: Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado (slated, according to their Web site, for “any given year in the future, in 2012 at the earliest”) and The Mastaba: Project for the United Arab Emirates, which originated in 1977.

With 30 years passing while the artists work out the details to finalize The Mastaba, it’s not surprising that Christo and Jeanne-Claude aren’t racking their brains for new material. What is surprising is how The Mastaba (first imagined a mere six years after the region gained independence from Britain) is even more culturally relevant today than at its conception.

The Umbrellas Japan-U.S.A. was installed in both Japan and the United States. 1984-1991. Photo by Wolfgang Volz, copyright 1991.

A mastaba is a 4,000 year-old geometric form. According to Christo, mud benches, placed outside homes in Mesopotamia, utilized the Mastaba shape to provide a resting place for travelers. The artist plans to recreate the form with 410,000 horizontally stacked oil barrels. The installation’s significance, says Christo, has become “more actual.” Today, oil dependence and the Middle East are front-and-center in the collective consciousness. When Christo and Jeanne-Claude first arrived in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi, “nobody in the United States and Europe could remember where Abu Dhabi [was].”

Still, even as decades pass between concept and inception, Jeanne-Claude insists the artistic duo remains true to their original vision. The only change, she says, is that the end result is “always a million times more magnificent than our wildest dreams.”

who: Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude
what: Exhibition, Works in Progress with Q+A and related events
when and where:  Artist’s Lecture Works in Progress with Q+A is held Thursday, Feb. 5, 7 p.m. at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, $28 general admission; Christo and Jeanne Claude: Projects exhibition runs through Sunday, May 3 at the Asheville Art Museum’s Gallery 6; Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Community Poster Installation self-guided tour involves the windows of Asheville-area businesses through Sunday, Feb. 15; the 1990 film Christo in Paris screens for free on Thursday, Jan. 29, 6 p.m. at Pack Memorial Library; the film Running Fence screens Sunday, Feb. 14 at 2 p.m. at the Asheville Art Museum’s WNC Resource Center; the 2007 film The Gates screens on Thursday, February 19, 7 p.m. at the Fine Arts Theatre, $12 general admission. Info: 253-3227.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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