Christo, homage to a life

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“Wrapped Reichstag” (1995), by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. (Wolfgang Volz/Christo)

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.

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“The Gates,” 2005. (haberarts.com)

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.

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The Reichstag without Christo’s fabric cloak but with Norman Foster’s dome. (Wikipedia)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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8 Responses to Christo, homage to a life

  1. Peter Van Erp says:

    I only saw one Christo work in place, Running Fence, in September 1976. I happened to be visiting a friend in San Francisco at the time, and we drove up to see it. I think it worked well, leading your eye to look at the landscape in the way Christo wanted, finally plunging into the ocean at Bodega Bay.
    I have no idea what the Gates meant to do, or the floating stuff on the lake in Italy, or any of his numerous other projects, but I’m glad I saw the fence.

    Like

  2. LazyReader says:

    Christo couldn’t sell his art, so he extorted the human sensitivity for grandiose outdoor fiascos that cities often engage in to solicit tourists, investment. His stuff was temporary so one might argue he was harmless……….But there’s nothing harmless of the modern art industry.


    First, it existed within the confines of the artist’s studio. Next, it became a social one which for a very long time was held by the ruling class. Art is what set apart the manses and palaces of the rich from the houses of the poor. Art became a justification of the ruling class’ authority. So when the masses stopped caring, they reinforced the justifications even more so.

    Almost all of the art industry today is nothing more than a price-fixing scam, where galleries and auction houses, in collaboration with elitist collectors, keep values grossly inflated by collaborating to have art purchased and privately withheld from public viewership. Collectors also gift crappy inflated modern art as a ‘charitable donation’ so they can avoid paying taxes. Others buy shitty modern art simply as a way to launder money.

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    • Johan says:

      A realistic characterization.., except one thing, the masses never cared for art, and even elites did not care for art historically, except a few. If we limit ourselves in our examples to the art of music, it were artists like Liszt, Berlioz and many others who first raised the status of the artist and the status of art, though often the elites of these times preferred their talented offspring to become lawyer or doctor. The status of art in the 20th century is matter of a long struggle of such people, composers, poets, painters, a struggle against society.

      Some basic sense of beauty and striving towards beauty has, due to improved conditions and increased leisure time, been born into the masses, but it is mostly expressed in the art of gardening. Actually, the art of gardening is also the least subject to perversion by 20th century elites, because for one, the natural living organic material does not allow for much perversion.., secondly, it doesn’t make you rich, thirdly, there is little glamour to it of the kind 20th century elites are looking for. In short, there is little in it which grants fame and money.
      Interior decoration would be second to that, in terms of popularity, though, since money can be made of it, and it can be used to signal status and ideology, and the material not being organic alive, it is already subject to the perversion of vain pretentiousness.

      The contemporary art elites are frauds who are making money and fame on the expense of those who historically had to suffer and dedicated their whole life to it. They are thief’s and parasites.

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  3. John the First says:

    We call this gimmick art. Gimmick artists have nothing to offer, they are clowns with tricks, they love attention, every sort of attention that is. And they attract contemporary vain and pretentious cliques who are bored to death. They are, what’s the word for people hungry for attention.. and they serve a certain public of likes. They belong to the extravaganza stratum of contemporary pop culture, which is saturated with attention desiring celebs.

    “[o]ur art has absolutely no purpose, except to be a work of art.”

    Since the purpose of the art of these gimmick artists is the attention and status recognition desire of the artists. They cannot be seriously criticized nor praised, because their convoluted solipsistic psyches have a way of turning everything into attention, turning everything upside down in the labyrinth of fantasy of their minds. It follows of course that the more light of attention they get, the more of them will pop up from all kinds of obscure places.

    “art has absolutely no purpose, except to be a work of art.”

    The fraudulent 20th century art cliques have stolen this from Oscar Wilde. If you read Oscar Wilde very well, you will find that he was a Platonist, and that art is not at all without purpose. The counter-intuitive, counter-normative expressions of Oscar Wilde were teasers, humoristic but serious, serious humour so to speak… When Oscar Wilde said that art has no purpose, that it is useless, he meant useless as having no utility in the realm of neediness, the lower realm of life. Beauty though has purpose for the contemplative higher mind. Oscar did not say this because he knew that when the word purpose is mentioned directly, people will at large immediately connect it to utility of some lower type (born out of neediness and lower desire, or connected to moralism, the only purpose known to society).

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  4. LazyReader says:

    A dome isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A classical dome with cast iron or in this case, cast aluminum.

    It’s what you chose to built it with.

    1: beryllium copper (mostly copper) good for springs & no-spark tools
    2: Inconel, a nickel-copper alloy (mostly nickel) high strength at high temperatures.
    3: Steel.
    4: Titanium. Talk about tough.
    5: Aluminum. Not as hard, lighter, softer
    6: Magnesium. Really light. Really soft. Some hard Italian cheeses are harder, I’d swear it.

    Like

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