For many years, I’ve wondered whether it was Christo’s naïvité, the childlike and overwhelming enthusiasm that he brought to every one of his hugely ambitious projects, that kept the art world from acknowledging him as one of the greatest artists of this era. What he and Jeanne-Claude, his wife and collaborator, achieved was so different from the work of anyone else, and on such a huge scale—seventy-five hundred saffron-colored nylon “gates,” in Central Park; the Reichstag, in Berlin, and the Pont Neuf, in Paris, transformed by their cloth wrappings into monumental and sensuous sculptures—that it’s hard to believe it was also ephemeral. Each spectacle drew huge crowds for two weeks and then vanished forever, without a trace. Together, the couple brought us a long-running aesthetic experience that was unlike anything else in contemporary art. Their deaths—Jeanne-Claude’s in 2009, Christo’s this past Sunday—ought to shame historians into taking the full measure of it.
I met them in 1964, the year they moved to New York from Paris, and I fell instantly under the spell of their very different personalities. Christo, who spoke almost no English, was mercurial, passionate, and implacable. Jeanne-Claude was French and upper-class, self-confident, witty, and—the essential factor—a brilliant manager. Their arguments were public and fierce, and punctuated by endearments—“Non, non, non, cheri!” I wrote about them first in 1972, when they were working on the “Valley Curtain” in Rifle, Colorado. I went to the openings of “The Pont Neuf Wrapped” and “Surrounded Islands,” and several other projects that I didn’t write about. The one I loved best, and did write about, was their “Running Fence,” from 1976, an eighteen-foot-high white nylon “ribbon of light,” as Christo described it, which stretched across twenty-four and a half miles of rolling farmland in California’s Marin and Sonoma Counties, and ended in the Pacific Ocean. The project cost the artists three million dollars, every cent of which Jeanne-Claude raised herself: some of the funds were from art dealers, but the major portion came from sales of Christo’s drawings of the staggeringly beautiful fence itself.
“Running Fence,” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 1972-76.Photograph by Wolfgang Volz / laif / Redux
Four years earlier, when they had begun gathering the necessary permissions, they were told that the conservative sheep and cattle farmers in that part of California would never agree to let them put such a thing on the land, even for two weeks—but this turned out not to be true. After repeated visits by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, all but three of the landowners not only gave them permission but became staunch and vocal allies of the project. The real opposition that Christo and Jeanne-Claude faced came from environmentalists and from outraged local artists, some of whom claimed that a nylon fence was not art and that this piece was a front for a series of McDonald’s stands. The Christos eventually needed nine lawyers to help them through the lawsuits and the seventeen public hearings at the state and county level. In the end, they defied the law by taking their fence to the ocean without a permit from the California Coastal Commission. It was a calculated risk. They made what the local paper called their “illegal leap” at the last minute, using the morning fog as cover, and by the time a legal hearing on a restraining order could be scheduled it was too late: the fence had already come and gone. “I completely work within American system by being illegal, like everyone else,” Christo said to me at the time. “It’s the subversive character of the system that makes it so exciting to live here—one reason, anyway.”
On the night the illegal leap was completed, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and twenty or thirty of the three hundred and sixty young, paid volunteers they had hired, were working by moonlight to install the last few panels, which went into the ocean. The workers had been on the job since five that morning, and they were laughing and shouting to each other. Christo moved back and forth, checking hooks, and occasionally running his hand along the white fabric. “Look at Christo flirting with his fence,” Jeanne-Claude said. A long-haired kid in torn jeans said, joyously, “It’s just so flip and outrageous. I can’t wait to see the rest of it.” Nobody enjoyed the fence more than Christo. Riding beside it one day in the passenger seat of a pickup truck driven by Ted Dougherty, the contractor on the project, he called out excitedly, “Look there, Ted. See how it describes the wind.”