Christo’s Billowy Visions, Fleeting but Unforgettable

I’m sorry I never got to ask Christo about Gabrovo, the Bulgarian city where he was born in 1935. He died this weekend, at 84, a dreamer with a cultish following to rival the Grateful Dead’s and a legacy that has always seemed a wry, humane retort to the cultural diktats of the Soviet bloc.

Back in February 2005, I drove with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, his wife and collaborator, at zero hour, when an army of paid helpers wearing matching gray smocks and deployed along 23 miles of footpaths unfurled “The Gates” in Central Park — all 7,500 of them, made from 5,390 tons of steel and more than a million square feet of saffron-colored vinyl. The operation cost millions of dollars. As with all of their public works, the tab was paid by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, including the cost of clearing the park after the gates were removed, leaving the place in pristine shape and providing the park with a hefty donation afterward.

It was a frigid, gusty morning. The two of them wore identical parkas. From the car, they inspected their troops, watching as the fabric was unrolled from the tops of the gates, the bright vinyl flapping in the wind, the twisting rows of gates lighting up the gray, somnolent, wintry park like streamers in a fireworks display. Jeanne-Claude’s hennaed hair was a shade of orange darker than the vinyl. Christo filled the car with nervous, ecstatic chatter and the scent of garlic, which he consumed like vitamins to ward off illness.

Crowds cheered them like ticker-tape heroes as they drove by.

Credit…Wolfgang Volz/Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Credit…David Corio/Michael Ochs Archive, via Getty Images
Credit…Earl Wilson/The New York Times

A running joke on David Letterman, “The Gates” turned out to be a fleeting gift to the city, a joy to millions, a provocation to some, and a tone poem to the genius of the park’s architects, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, whose topography it highlighted. It was also a testament to Christo’s childlike wonder and sheer, implacable chutzpah.

When the Soviets crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Christo fled Prague, where he had gone to study and work in an avant-garde theater. He made his way to Vienna, and from there to Paris where he met a French army officer’s Moroccan-born daughter, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon. He was a charmer, a force of nature. She was brilliant and no less determined.

Over the years, their most spectacular coups de theatre — swaddling Berlin’s Reichstag and the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris, wrapping an island in Florida’s Biscayne Bay and part of the coastline of Australia, installing a rippling cloth fence across 25 gorgeous miles of Northern California — seemed to skeptics a bit too much Barnum and too little Braque: middlebrow entertainments. Increasingly, Christo’s popularity became a strike against him in some rarefied quarters.

Credit…Wolfgang Volz/Christo
Credit…Wolfgang Volz/Christo

In fact, his art was easy to grasp but hard to categorize. Early on, his penchant for wrapping everyday objects, like paint cans and oil drums, seemed to link him to ’60s American Pop artists and French Nouveau Realists. But then he began to wrap whole buildings and to work outdoors on an environmental, megalomaniacal scale that suggested ’70s earth artists like Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria — except that Christo’s installations were temporary, sometimes urban, and they embraced, as an essential component of the art, all the tedious paperwork, financial finagling and negotiations with public officials and neighbors that could drag on for decades and occasionally turn nasty.

“The Gates” was 26 years in the making. When Christo first floated the idea, New York City officials published a weighty tome counting all the reasons it was “the wrong project in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Credit…Wolfgang Volz
Credit…Wolfgang Volz/Christo
Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

Undaunted, Christo seemed almost pleased by the rejection. “I find it very inspiring in a way that is like abstract poetry,” he said. His aesthetics, as he repeatedly defined them, encompassed “everything involved in the process — the workers, the politics, the negotiations, the construction difficulty, the dealings with hundreds of people.” The actual end product — the wrapped bridge or running fence — was the culmination of this process and just as ephemeral.

With his interest in intangibles and process, Christo was like many other conceptual artists of the ’60s and ’70s. That his approach involved wrapping things in order to reveal them was itself a familiar conceptualist concept. What set him apart was the fact that his work attracted such large masses of people, global media attention, and generated no small measure of happiness and awe.

Credit…Getty Images

It riffed on the utopianism of Soviet Socialist Realism, which postured about being an art for Everyman. In lieu of that sham populism, which produced supersized monuments to Marx and Mother Russia — public works meant to last for the ages and imposed by the state on a captive populace — Christo flipped the script. He trafficked in a passing sort of abstraction whose meanings remained open-ended and up for debate. Its creation was a personal obsession requiring public consent — dependent on a messy, slow political theater that was the ultimate conceptual point of the art.

Which made the wrapped bridge or building the after-party, a celebration of hard-earned consensus, the affirmation, through art, of an open society. It was also Christo’s good-humored gift, wrapped in pink or orange vinyl instead of a bow.

“I am an educated Marxist,” he once said. “I use the capitalist system to the very end.” He added that his and Jeanne-Claude’s projects “exist in their time, impossible to repeat. That is their power, because they cannot be bought, they cannot be possessed.”

All of which helps explain why, in 2017, after he and Jeanne-Claude labored for more than two decades and spent some $ 15 million of their own money on a project in Colorado — a fabric canopy suspended over 42 snaking miles of the Arkansas River — Christo suddenly walked away from the work at the 11th hour. The land was federally owned, he pointed out, which made Donald Trump its landlord.

Credit…Wolfgang Volz/Christo

“I came from a Communist country,” he explained. “I use my own money and my own work and my own plans because I like to be totally free.”

Gabrovo is the Central Balkan version of the borscht belt, a hardscrabble, endearing city with a proud, headstrong populace and an impish streak. Under Soviet rule, it became Communism’s capital of humor, home to a wonderfully oddball, hangdog museum called the House of Humor and Satire, a collector of bad puns, Cold War broadsides and untranslatable jokes, now a faded relic of a vanished era. The sign that still greets visitors to town says “Welcome and good riddance.”

I have visited Gabrovo over the years, the last time not so long ago, and contemplated Christo, native son made good, recalling the sight of him dashing around the Reichstag and stamping his feet in icy Central Park, the center of attention, basking in the glow of “The Gates.”

Headstrong, impish, endearing. That was Christo.

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