"The Mastaba, Project for the United Arab Emirates" and "Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado"
During their 50-year marriage, environmental artist Christo (Christo Vladimirov Javacheff) and his creative partner Jeanne-Claude (Jeanne-Claude Marie Denat) often took separate flights to the same destinations. The idea was that if one plane crashed the surviving partner could carry on with their work. Given the often isolated destinations and the frequency with which they traveled — in one year alone, for example, while wrapping the Reichstag in fabric and aluminum, they made 25 trips to Berlin — this was not such a crazy notion.
Few couples have ever sublimated their egos as thoroughly for such rich creative collaborations as Christo and Jeanne-Claude — artists Gilbert and George or historians Will and Ariel Durant are the closest comparisons. Their collaborations have generated fame, infamy, derision and celebration around the planet, from wrapping the Pont-Neuf in Paris, the Reichstag in Berlin, trees in Brazil and even Snoopy's doghouse to installing blue and yellow umbrellas across entire swaths of California and Japan. Arguably their best-known work was the most recent to come to fruition, "The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005," for which they installed 7,503 saffron-colored cloth "gates." Though "The Gates" existed materially for only 14 days in the dead of winter, thousands of people (including seemingly all of Connecticut) made pilgrimages to bask in its glory. Such is the power of their shared vision.
Now, one half of the partnership is gone — Jeanne-Claude died of a brain aneurysm at age 74 in November 2009. Christo is flying solo these days, and he will touch down in Westport on June 30 for the opening of an unusual and fascinating exhibition that will showcase two "works in progress" by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The works are "The Mastaba, Project for the United Arab Emirates" and "Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado." On view in Westport will be preparatory collages and drawings and explanatory text for each of these two massive undertakings, as well as a video montage celebrating the life and work of Jeanne-Claude.
"Over the River" will, when installed in August 2014, consist of 5.9 miles of silver-colored fabric suspended over a scenic stretch of wilderness and river in south-central Colorado (more details are available at overtheriverinfo.com). "The Mastaba" will consist of 410,000 oil barrels arranged into the shape of a structure 492 feet high and 984 feet wide. (Think of it as the sort of religious shrine that Wall-E would build.) Because of various wars and bureaucratic hang-ups, the project has languished for three decades. When and if it is ever installed — it's planned for a desert locale 150 miles from any metropolis — it may be an exclamation point on 100-plus years of dependence on fossil fuels.
Because such monumental works have been in progress for so long, Christo has dedicated his remaining time on earth to completing these final two collaborations.
"It's an easy mistake to tout this as 'Christo comes to Westport,' but theirs was very much a collaboration and this will be a way of celebrating Jeanne-Claude's life and dreams," says Helen Klisser During, the Westport Art Center director of visual arts who helped pull off this remarkable artistic coup. "It's Christo's raison d'etre now to see these projects through, a real commitment to their vision."
Jeanne-Claude's sudden death also underscores the essential mystery of the couple's idiosyncratic art, which beyond its aesthetic majesty also reminds viewers of the transitory nature of existence. In an interview for the Journal of Contemporary Art, Christo touched on this: "I and Jeanne-Claude would like our projects to challenge and question the people's notion of art. The temporal character of the project challenges the immortality of art. Is art immortal? Is art forever? Is building things in gold and silver and stones to be remembered forever? It is a kind of naïveté and arrogance to think that this thing stays forever, for eternity. … All these projects have this strong dimension of missing, of self effacement, that they will go away, like our childhood, our life."
An important aspect to Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work is that they have never accepted sponsorship, raising all the money for these projects themselves. They have also spent years negotiating with governments and landowners for the only thing they require from others: permission to temporarily "borrow spaces." For example, it took 23 years from when the idea popped in their heads to wrap the Reichstag to the actual brief window of time when the building, fully wrapped, was available for view thus, "1971-1995" was incorporated into the title of the final work, "Wrapped Reichstag." Another important aspect to their projects is that they completely vanish afterward.
Jeanne-Claude addressed this in the same interview:
"We recycle all the material used in every project. We don't reuse it, of course, but it is reused by other people for other purposes, industrial, agricultural or ecological, like in sandbags to contain the floods of a river."
During imagines that Christo "must be suffering enormous loss and mourning, but this has kept Jeanne-Claude alive," she says.