The artist Christo has died. One must not, they say, speak ill of the dead. I am not speaking ill of the dead man but of his art. Those who bruise easily may stop reading here, but Christo’s death will rob me of opportunities to express my thoughts about his art, until a book is written about him or his work is honored in a museum exhibit. How they will fit it in I have no idea.
The most iconic of those works was the 1995 draping in shiny fabric of the Reichstag, Germany’s historic parliament building in Berlin, which shortly after would suffer the indignity of a new dome by British modernist architect Norman Foster. The “installation,” as Christo’s art is denominated, was temporary, the only saving grace of his collection. This year he had planned to wrap up the Arc de Triomphe, a work still expected to reach completion by year’s end in spite of his death (if not necessarily the Covid crisis). He will no doubt go down in art history as the creator of “The Gates,” in New York’s Central Park – not because this was his best work, far from it, although it was among his least intrusive, and there is much to applaud in that. Rather, “The Gates” was the subject of a brilliant comic bit by Stephen Colbert on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show in 2005, maybe the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.
Here is a revealing quotation of Christo, taken from today’s obituary by the Associated Press:
In a 2018 interview with The Art Newspaper, Christo spoke about his signature wrapping aesthetic. In the instance of the Reichstag, he said, covering it with fabric made the Victorian sculptures, ornament and decoration disappear and, thus, highlighted, “The principal proportion of architecture.” [Perhaps the AP meant to write “the principle of proportion in architecture.]
“But, like classical sculpture, all our wrapped projects are not solid buildings; they are moving with the wind, they are breathing,” he said. “The fabric is very sensual and inviting; it’s like a skin.”
“Christo lived his life to the fullest, not only dreaming up what seemed impossible but realizing it,” said a press release announcing Christo’s death, which occurred of natural causes in New York City, where he had lived since 1964. New York’s art world rubbed off on him bigtime. His art had nothing to say except what observers thought about it, or infatuated art critics wrote about it. Christo’s career and his oeuvre was Tom Wolfe’s book The Painted Word writ large. Published in 1975, it was about how America’s art world had reached a point where art was secondary to what critics wrote of it, which was mostly ridiculous, and hence largely and accurately descriptive. That the silly career of Christo was massively successful says much more about the art world than about the art of Christo, who was born in Bulgaria. Is it Bulgaria or Romania whose capital city was said to be a stage set of grandeur masking decay? Christo’s art was exactly the reverse.
It pains me to say that while Christo was a Bulgarian, his art was American to the core. That is a criticism less of Christo than of American culture. Just about all American art and culture these days is designed to be endured in the echo chamber of the nation’s critical community, with the expectation that connoisseurs – the intelligent public having lost interest in art long ago – will be impressed not by the art itself but by the number of tweets and retweets it garners on Twitter. If you look at most modern art objectively, that makes sense. (Not the art but its dependence on the words of others.)
The most interesting thing about Christo was his wife and artistic partner, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, who was born on the same day, June 13, in the same year, 1935, as her husband, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff. She told the London Telegraph that “[o]ur art has absolutely no purpose, except to be a work of art. We do not give messages.” She said they took separate flights so that their work would continue if one of the planes were to crash. She died of a brain aneurysm in 2009, having enjoyed 15 years of credit as co-conspirator with her husband, who took sole credit for their work between 1961 and 1994, when he was finally shamed into sharing the blame.
There is an art to the taking of credit at which Christo truly did excel. RIP.