Looking back at the career of an artist whose projects transformed landscapes for a few days.
A visionary and world-famous artist died at the end of May. Christo Javacheff was born in Bulgaria in 1935 and from his youth studied art. In 1956 he escaped from Bulgaria and made his way to Vienna, Geneva, and finally to Paris. He and his wife, who was his regular collaborator, moved to New York in 1964 and he became an American citizen in 1973.
Christo began his career as a painter but under the influence of revolutionary artists like
Jasper Johns, he started experimenting with a style of sculpture that involved wrapping everyday items in fabric. His idea was that by obscuring something, an artist paradoxically draws more attention to whatever it is and lets us see familiar things in fresh and more introspective ways. The environmental installations into which he moved sought the same thing on a far larger scale.
In the 1970s and ’80s, his high-profile projects made him one of the most well-known artists working in the United States, even if many people angrily insisted that his work wasn’t art at all. In 1972 he strung a 1,250-foot-long orange curtain across a valley in Colorado. A few years later, he built a 24-mile, 18-foot-high fabric fence in northern California. In 1983, he surrounded 11 islands off the coast of Miami in vibrant pink fabric. He wrapped the oldest bridge in Paris in 1985 and the entire Reichstag building in Berlin 10 years later. In 2005 he installed 7,500 curtained gates along 23 miles of paths in New York’s Central Park. If you’re not familiar with his work, google his name and take a look at some of his projects. Don’t try to read anything into them—just see how visually captivating they are. None of them stayed in place longer than a couple of weeks.
The New York Times called him an eccentric visionary who won over many of his skeptics with “persistence, charm and a childlike belief that eventually everyone would see things the way he did.” Indeed, very few artists are forced to defend their projects before skeptical audiences more often than he was. A week before he died, he told CNN that over his career, 23 outdoor projects had been realized while 47 others were rejected. For every thousand people who try to stop his projects, a thousand others try to help.
Christo’s next big project was to wrap the Arc d’ Triomphe in Paris. It’s a plan he’d been imagining since 1962. He was going to encase the famous Parisian monument in 25,000 square meters of silver and blue fabric bundled with 7000 meters of red rope. Much to my delight, his office has confirmed that the project will go ahead and be carried out in September 2021. It will be his last. We will not see another like him. Christo was 84.