Jeanne-Claude, the wife and collaborator of Christo died recently and yesterday a memorial service was held at the Met in New York City. I learned that the two of them were born on the same day, June 13, 1935. They first met in 1958.
I remember seeing Christo talk at the Carnegie Art Museum in Pittsburgh in about 1977 or 1978 at a screening of films about his work Running Fence and Valley Curtain. I was impressed by the energy, scale and sheer chutzpah of designing and producing a work that was 24 miles long. Running Fence was a fabric fence that started at the Pacific coastline in California and ran inland for 24 miles.
I have always admired that fact that Christo and Jeanne-Claude raised the money to produce their expensive and temporary projects on their own. In college I even contemplated doing my own Christo-like installation, dreaming of roping off the Arts Quad at Cornell. I made some tentative plans and even took photos of the area, but scheming is easier and cheaper than doing.
Jeanne-Claude was the silent partner, the wife behind the scenes. An article in the NY Times mentions that even though she generated ideas and worked on many projects with Christo, they only started to credit her name in 1994. It is curious that a woman who was an avant garde artist lived as a nameless collaborator in the quiet shadow of her more famous husband.
Since they were partners in their work it is difficult to assess what each of their contributions were. And since their work was as much the logistics and political maneuvering of gaining permission to take over large areas of public space, as it was the aesthetics of the final installation, it is difficult to judge their work in the same terms of say judging a painting or a photograph.
In February of 2005 I traveled to New York to visit their Central Park winter project, The Gates. The bright large scaled orange gates jumped out of the dreary gray winter landscape of Central Park, a magnet for visitors. One friend at the time commented that The Gates was a 1970s idea that was finally realized in 2005. While the sheer scale and number of gates was impressive along with their ability to draw people, at some level the piece had an emptiness.
The funniest and most telling commentary on The Gates was done by Stephen Colbert, then on the Daily Show and billed as their Senior Conceptual Art Correspondent.
"I used to think 21 million dollars could be used to achieve something noble, like building a hospital wing, but The Gates has forced me to reconceptualize what what 21 million dollars can be used for. In this case, like, redecorating a bike path," deadpans Colbert.