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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Christo Javacheff

Wrapping the Reichstag, Berlin, 1995
One of the saddest things for an artist is to see one of his or her works deteriorate. Art is supposed to be permanent, archival, everlasting, eternal, right? Sometimes it's through misuse, sometimes because of the natural elements, sometimes just poor planning on the part of the artist. Up until the early 1960s, it was taken for granted that all art should last forever. Then came the advent of conceptual art, and its greatest proponent, Christo Javacheff. With an ethnic name like that, it's little wonder we know him  today simply as Christo. We also know him as the number one "wrap artist" of all time. His 1976 Running Fence in California, his thousands of umbrellas in California and Japan in 1991, his wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin in 1995 (top), and his pink skirted Key Biscayne Islands in 1983 (below, left), have cemented his name in the art history books for all time.  Yet not one of these works of art exists today.

Pink Skirted Islands, 1983, Biscayne Bay,
Miami, Flordia, Christo
But they do. They all continue to exist--in the memories of those who saw them and gaped in awe at their daring magnificence; in countless, heavy coffee table tomes, in thousands of photos, and in the documentary films of Albert and David Maysles. There is more to Christo's art than covering up landmarks with plastic or cloth so that they may be seen in a new light. His works have enabled millions to see art in a new light. He takes art out of galleries and museums and made it span rivers of complacency as he did both literally and figuratively when he wrapped Paris' Pont Neuf (New Bridge) in millions of yards of golden fabric, turning its hard stone into billowing softness. Not uncommonly, locals who have scoffed at his projects find themselves wishing they could remain  permanently. But that kind of familiarity would again breed complacency. There is nothing natural about Christo's art. It is intended to be startling, both in its visual impact as well as its conceptual daring.

Christo started out small, wrapping cans and
bottles in 1958-59 as the Pop movement and
conceptual environmental art were in their infancy.
Christo was born in Bulgaria in 1935. He grew up studying art behind the "iron curtain" where realism was the only kind of art; and art was only deemed to be of value insofar as it supported national goals. Christo fled to Paris in the 1950s where he met his wife and manager, Jeanne-Claude (who died in 2009). They emigrated to the U.S. in 1964 and became citizens. Christo started wrapping items as mundane as beer cans (above, right), then moved up to ever larger and larger items, finally evolving to whole buildings, bridges, valleys and islands. Moreover, quite apart from the works themselves, coming from a communist homeland, Christo is ever involved in the democracy of his undertakings. Years are spent getting permission from dozens of governmental agencies and citizen groups, involving thousands of individuals and millions of dollars. His personal income derives from royalties from photos, books, and films but in every case, each community demands a cut. He works with local politicians, but ironically, Christo is no great "schmoozer."  Even at 77, he waxes eloquently about his art before these many groups yet the man had a sharp temper and takes offense at kissing hands or any other part of the human anatomy.

Over the River, current proposed work since 2009. Christo
plans to cover 42 miles of the Arkansas River with luminous
fabric for two weeks during the summer of 2014.
What's in the future?  With the kind of "lag time" involved in each of his projects, Christo has to plan ahead. The Reichstag wrapping took over fifteen years to come to fruition, which makes the Running Fence seem like a "Flash in the Pan." It took only four years to negotiate. The Miami project took three years, and the Pont Neuf work, ten. For the past twenty years, in Abu Dhabi, Christo has been planning a gigantic pyramid of 390,500 oil barrels. Given its location, there should be no shortage of art materials.

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