publication of the International Sculpture Center
Matter of Passion: A Conversation with
Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Jan Garden Castro
to Contents page>
Project for Central Park, New York City, 1997.
Pencil, enamel paint,
photograph by Wolfgang Volz
wax crayon, and tape, 21.5 x 28 cm.
and Jeanne-Claude have created 18 major outdoor projects, which are among
the most ambitious, innovative sculptures in the world. In February 2005,
The Gates will transform New York Citys Central Park, the
space famously designed, starting in 1858, by Frederick Law Olmsted and
Calvert Vaux. In advance of the project, this spring and summer (April
6July 25, 2004), the Metropolitan Museum of Art will feature an
exhibition on The Gates. Also in April 2004, Christo and Jeanne-Claude
will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award in Sculpture from the International
earlier projects include Wrapped Coast (Australia, 1969); Valley Curtain
(Rifle, Colorado, 197072); Running Fence (Sonoma and Marin
Counties, California, 197276); Surrounded Islands (Biscayne
Bay, Greater Miami, 198083); The Pont Neuf Wrapped (Paris,
197585); The Umbrellas (JapanU.S.A., 198491),
and Wrapped Reichstag (Berlin, 197195), which cost 15 million
dollars. The artists fund all of their projects themselves and do not
benefit financially from photographs, posters, postcards, and book and
Christo and Jeanne-Claude
are critical of those who do not pay attention to the facts on their Web
and their use of language. Among the publications they approve are the
biography Christo and Jeanne-Claude, by Burt Chernow with an epilogue
by Wolfgang Volz, and the books that Christo designs to document each
project. Still photographs and films of each project capture its aesthetic
splendor, as well as some living qualities of various fabrics, folds,
and configurations. Each projects process, preparatory art, materials,
photographs, and documents are carefully preserved for museum exhibitions.
Some of Christos works from the 50s and 60s and many
preparatory drawings are sold to pay for each multi-million-dollar outdoor
In a radical departure
from most art, Christo and Jeanne-Claudes projects require up to
a quarter-century to realize, yet they have a life span limited to days
or weeks, after which they are deconstructed and the materials recycled.
Christo has beautifully described their nomadic quality: Things
passing through. Their art pays attention
to living beauty, mutability, evanescence, and the émigré.
This interview took place in the artists studio in New York City
in the spring of 2003.
Jan Garden Castro:
How does your work dialogue with nature and the public?
Gates, Project for Central Park,
New York City, 1997
Pencil, charcoal, pastel, wax crayon, aerial photograph, and fabric
sample, two parts: 224 x 106.6 cm.; 244 x 38 cm.
take The Gates project first. How did The Gates project
start? We had other proposals for New York City between 1964 and 68,
which is a completely different storythey involved buildings. Then
we did a lot of projects outside of Manhattanin Australia, in the
Rocky Mountains in Colorado, in California, and Loose Park in Kansas City,
Missouri. More and more, our interest in the architecture in Manhattan
moved to people walking in the streets. In Manhattan, people walk so much
on the sidewalks. At some moments, Jeanne-Claude and I were contemplating
using the sidewalk to do a project involving people simply walking.
We knew we would never get the permits, so we abandoned that idea in a
C: And, of
course, the only place where people walk leisurely is in the parks. There
are many parks in the five boroughs of New York City. But the exceptional
one is Central Park, not only because of the design, but also because
that park is isolated from any natural forms, absolutely stuck in the
middle of a highly condensed urban grid. There are other parks like the
West Side Park, but it is diluted by the Hudson River; even Prospect Park
is diluted by private homes, gardens, and big trees, not isolated like
Central Park. Vaux and Olmsted designed the park in a ceremonial, Victorian
way. Surrounding the park is a stone wall, and the only way to go into
the park is through openings called gates. Several gates even have names,
like the Gate of the Girls, the Boys, the Artists, the Strangers.
We are trying to
invent a module to activate the most banal space between your feet and
the first branches of the trees. You usually walk on the walkways of the
park, looking at trees, looking at people, but you have a space between
your feet and the branches hanging over the walkways or just near the
walkways. We are trying to energize that space.
J-C: And now,
I am going to interrupt to explain exactly what we say, but visually (shows
C: For each
of our projects, we do life-sized tests before the project starts. Vince
Davenport, our chief engineer and director of construction, and his wife
Jonita Davenport, who is the Project Director of The Gates, built
18 gates with different widths of walkways on their meadow in the state
of Washington. The width of the gates will vary with the width of each
walkway; sometimes they are 18 feet wide; sometimes they are six feet
wide. Each gate is 16 feet tall.
J-C (as the
video runs): Immediately you see geometry and very capricious movements.
Those gates were built in October 2002. Now, in April , they are
still standing. The assembly can be done quickly. The gates are bolted
to a 700-pound steel base; then the cocoon is opened and the fabric comes
down. There is enough room for ambulances, police cars, and even garbage
trucks to drive underneath. In the test, each fabric panel was sewn differently,
and in a slightly different hue, so we could make an aesthetic choice.
And then Mother Nature sent us some wind, and now you can observe the
capricious movement of the fabric, much like the serpentine design of
the walkways in Central Park, and you see the geometry of the poles.
Curtain, Rifle, Colorado, 1970-72.
12,780 square meters of nylon, cables, and rope.
C: The rectangular
shape of the gates reflects the geometric grid pattern of hundreds of
city blocks surrounding
Central Park. This
projectand all of our projectsare designed for a specific
site. They engage profoundly with the people living in that site.
did you decide on the saffron color?
C: This is
the color of autumn. On a very cold winter day, in a bare, gray park,
you have the reminiscence of the foliage of autumn.
J-C: We chose
February because it is the only month of the year when we could be sure
that there would be no leaves on the trees, so that you can see the work
of art from far away, through the bare branches.
read in the New York Times that the Sierra Club is still opposed to the
C: We have
critics all the timeto the very end, just before the project is
J-C: We are
perfectly content with that because in 1980 we hired the services of an
ornithologist of the Audubon Society, who said there was no conflict of
interest and that he would work with us. He studied The Gates and
said that there would be absolutely no problem with the birds.
is the latest stage of Over the River,
your project for the Arkansas River in Colorado?
the River was started in 1992; the river site involves about 18 villages
and towns over 40 miles.
a very busy river with many people living there, a railroad track
one side and a highway on the other side. Its not pristine.
C: All of
our projects distinguish between urban environments and rural sites. Central
Park is an urban, manmade park; everything was invented by Vaux and Olmsted.
It is a manmade structure like the Pont-Neuf in Paris or the Reichstag
in Berlin. It is entirely an architectural, landscaped park.
appear in photographs to be set in a pristine setting, like the Wrapped
Coast (196869), in Australia, which was nine miles from the
center of Sidney on the grounds of the Prince Henry Hospital. It was used
as a garbage dump. Surrounded Islands is at the heart of Miami
Dade county. Over 2.5 million people live around Biscayne Bay, which is
exactly like a giant water park. All of our projects take place where
people live and use the space to build bridges, houses, factories, churches,
post offices, and highways.
Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties,
California, 1972-76.200,000 square meters of nylon, steel poles,
and steel cables.
J-C: So were
The Umbrellasblue in Japan, yellow in California. In both countries,
the umbrellas were in front of temples, churches, gasoline stations, schools,
highways, and bridges. Running Fence was on the property of 59
ranchers who lived there, who had their ranches there and their cattle
C: It crossed
14 roads and Highway 101, three towns. Anyway, in Over the River,
there are signs that the place is widely used by humans.
J-C: At the
present time, we are in the third year of preparing an environmental impact
assessment, which we pay for, but the company was chosen by the local
government in Colorado. It is already the thickness of the New York telephone
book. We have spent over $300,000 for it, and each month we receive more
bills, which we promptly pay. They have analyzed every possible situation
of humans, animals, and plants. The only animals they havent yet
studied are giraffes and elephants.
C: This is
something important. Normally works of art do not have things like that.
The first time a work of art had an environmental impact report was in
1975 for the Running Fence project in California, which was realized
Over the River
involves leasing or renting federal land along the Arkansas River in Colorado.
The Department of the Interiors Bureau of Land Management regulates
these landsand over 20 percent of the land in the United States.
The government uses the land around the Arkansas River, but it also rents
or leases land to the state of Colorado, two counties, 17 governmental
agencies, and two private corporations. Even private people can lease
the land. By federal law, all big projectsours covers a 40-mile-long
arearequire an environmental impact assessment study to analyze
changes in the social structure of that placeeverything from traffic
to garbage, to visitors, to people living there, the noise, the dust,
the birds, the bees. Often the study takes a long time. After that, we
will go to public hearings.
J-C: The process
is part of the work, as much as a pregnancy is part of having a baby.
Of course the process is very important, but it has only one aimto
one day finally realize the project.
you have a philosophy of art? How has it changed over the years?
J-C: We dont
have a philosophy of art. What is it that Christo and Jeanne-Claude do?
We wish to create works of art, works of joy and of beauty. As with every
true work of art, it has absolutely no purpose whatsoever: it is not a
message, it is not a symbol, it is only a work of art. And like every
true artist, we create those works of art for us and our collaborators.
Coast, One Million Square Feet, Little Bay,
Sydney, Australia, 1968-69.
90,000 square meters of erosion-control fabric
and56.3 kilometers of rope.
C: This is
something very important. The essential part of these projects is that
they are decided by us. It is something we want to do, we have the urge
to do it, we enjoy doing it. This is one of the reasons we will never,
never do commissions. For all of the projects, we have the inexplicable
urge to do it.
J-C: No commissions,
no sponsors, ever.
C: Over the
last 40 years, we have realized 18 projects, and we failed to get permission
for 38 projects, and we lost interest.
Mastaba of Abu Dhabi was begun in 1979. What is its current state?
J-C: It is
sleeping. It is not abandoned, and we have not lost interest.
you want to talk about your earliest passions growing up in Bulgaria?
I read that your grandfather was a freedom fighter in the Balkan War.
true. On my mothers side, my grandfather was a freedom fighter in
the early 20th century, in the part of Macedonia now in Greece, and he
was executed during the Balkan war in 1913, and my mother was orphaned.
My grandmother escaped to Bulgaria in 1913. I studied and lived in Bulgaria
until the age of 21 in 1956. And I have never been back.
did not escape from Bulgaria. Christo went legally from Bulgaria to another
communist country, Czechoslovakia. And from Prague he escaped to Vienna.
works are important to you. There was a quote in the Molly Donovan book
about Friedrich Engelss notion that textiles are a human invention
that separated Homo sapiens from primitive beings.
C: That is
a well-known fact; it was not invented by Engels.
important to remember that for over 5,000 years, artists have been fascinated
with folds, pleats, and draperies. The use of fabric can be seen in frescos,
wood, marble, paintings, and etchings.
you can recognize the style. For example, in the Gothic period, the folds
and draperies are more angular, but in the Baroque period of Bernini,
they are rounded, more flamboyant, going in all directions. One perfect
example of what fabric does in classic art is the case of the French sculptor
Rodin. Rodin did two versions of the figure of Balzac, the French writer.
In the first version, Balzac was totally nakedbig belly, skinny
legs, and many details. In the second version, Rodin took Balzacs
cape, put it in liquid plaster, and wrapped or shrouded the figure with
that cape. Today we have the famous Balzac in the Museum of Modern Art,
and on Boulevard Raspail in Paris. Basically, he hid the anecdotal details
to highlight the principal proportions of the figure. With our wrapping
projectsnot the gates, not the umbrellaswe do the same. For
example, the Reichstag is a Victorian building with lots of ornamentation,
decoration, and sculptures, and they were all hidden when the Reichstag
was wrapped in one million square feet of silver fabric. You see the principal
proportions of the buildingthe height of the tower and the width
of the building.
only the essence.
Islands, Biscayne Bay,
Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83.
585,00 square meters of fabric
floating around 11 islands
C: And, of
course, all of our projects are living objects. The still photographs
dont give a fair understanding, because these projects are in constant
motionthe wind is blowing the folds, the pleats. The Reichstag for
14 days was like a living object, breathing, moving in the wind, and,
of course, changing the color and the shapes of the shadows of the folds.
This project involved a tremendous dynamic quality, and this is a very
important part of all of our projects. Theyre not static, not like
wood, stone, and steel. Running Fence was always movingit
was showing the extraordinary power of the force of the wind. The Surrounded
Islands were moving with the surf, with the waves of the ocean. All
these projects are very dynamic structures.
to Molly Donovan, your wrapped objects negotiate a fine line between
the literal and the enigmatic, to reveal both a fascination
with the packaging of the West and a critical stance toward the commodification
of the objects.
of all, please look behind you at these wrapped cans from 1958 and that
package from 1961.
C: These packages
have nothing to do with industrial packaging or selling products in the
capitalist system. They are very nomadic, humble things in transition,
J-C: For one
exhibition poster, Christo had fun with the packaging ideajust once.
C: The important
thing to understand is that all of our projects have a nomadic quality,
things in transition, going away, they will be gone forever. And this
quality is an essential part of all our work. They are airynot heavy
like stone, steel, or concrete blocks. They are passing through.
J-C: And you
understand why we say nomadic. You have seen images. You see
a giant empty plain. Then a nomadic tribe arrives, builds an entire town
of fabric, lives there a few weeks, and one day they fold all their fabric
tents and are gone. And what remains? A vast empty plain. The nomads are
C: Our projects
exist for a very short time, and they disappear after a few days, two
there an epiphany about exile?
Fabric, rope, enamel paint, and tin cans,
13 x 10 cm. each.
J-C: We never
talk about generalities, nor about other artists. But you have a point
there: indeed, Christo and I are immigrants. By the way, for three years
we were illegal aliens in New York. And we will be immigrants our entire
lives. Our American passports do not change anything. We are displaced
C: That is
a very important quality of late 20th-century and early 21st-century culture.
There have never been so many people displaced for political, social,
and economic reasons. Of course, thousands, millions of people around
the world from different places going to different places are creating
a completely different culture. Many writers in the English language are
from India. Many French writers were born in Bulgaria or other countries.
Of course our work has a tremendous dimension of that process.
are probably aware that an e-mail was going around that you were planning
on permanently wrapping the White House with plastic and duct tape in
the name of world peace. Do you take it as a compliment that many consider
your work an alternative to war?
Its not the only time. They announced in Rio de Janeiro that we
were going to wrap the figure of Jesus Christ on top of the mountain.
They have announced so many thingsusually on April 1st. This one
are careful to separate financially your artwork from the books, films,
and postcards about the work. (Christo designs the books but does not
profit from them.)
Do you know the difference between the name Christo and the name Christo
two of you are responsible for outdoor work starting in 94?
outdoor work since the first one in 1961, but we changed the name in 94.
Everything you see in this room, which obviously belongs indoors, was
created by the hand of Christo alone. He never had an assistant in his
studio on the fifth floorno elevator. He even frames his drawings
himself. And all the drawings are called preparatory drawings because
they are created exclusively before the completion of the project,
C: The ideas
for projects come from both of us. For example, the islands in Florida
surrounded with six million square feet of pink fabric was the idea of
J-C: Of course
we kept our mouths shut because we wanted to get the permit. If we had
said that it was my idea, forget it. Only our collaborators knew.
have played an important role, and your working relationship is extraordinary.
How do you decide what to sell to collectors?
C: We put
them in storage when we dont want to sell them.
of our big projects has its own documentation exhibition, which varies
between 250 and 400 items; they travel only to museums, colleges, and
universities. In the exhibition, you can see the evolution of the project
long before we had the permits.
C: You can
see the drawings, sketches, scale models, technical input from the engineers,
the real materialsfabric, anchors, poles, cablesdocuments,
correspondence, court drawings when were taken to court, and photographs.
a complete story.
you have any other things planned?
C: No, we
usually work on at least two or three projects simultaneously because
we are never sure that we will get permission for one. Once we get the
permission, we concentrate our resources and energy
on that project, and the other projects will wait. This is why, for example,
Over the River will wait until The Gates project is realized.
We have only a few months in front of us.
the River, Project fot the Arkansas River,
Colorado 1999. Pencil, charcoal, and crayon, 55.9 x 71.1 cm.
you done tests for Over the River?
C: Yes, very
much like The Gates tests, we needed to do tests, but not at the
site of the Arkansas River. We rented an area northwest of Colorado with
a similar topography. Over three years, we did four tests with 18 fabric
panels to choose the right fabric, the right way of sewing the fabric,
the right way of folding the fabric, and the right colors. We hung our
cables over a brook and experimented.
you are on the road, you see the fabric from above, and you see waves
of fabric moving in the wind.
C: From above,
you cannot see the water. When you go down to the river level
you can see the clouds and the mountains, the formation of the rocks and
trees through the fabric. Just like this collage here. From underneath
you can see through the fabric
the fabric is woven very loosely.
C: It will
take six hours to raft the 40 miles of the river.
J-C: We are
using 40 miles, but there will be only seven miles of fabric because there
are large and small interruptions.
The Gates, Michael Bloomberg is on your team. I guess for the Reichstag
you were friends with Willy Brandt.
but the fact that we were friends with Willy Brandt did not help to get
permission for the Reichstag, because he died many years before. Do you
know how we got permission for the Reichstag? They didnt invite
us; it was imposed on us. Our arch-enemy was the Chancellor of Germany,
Helmut Kohl. And he had told the media that as long as he was chancellor,
the Reichstag would not be wrapped. And he was absolutely sure that we
would lose if it were to come to a roll call vote in parliamentbecause
he had ordered his party to vote against us. After 70 minutes of debate,
we defeated him by a majority of 69 votes: 292 in favor, 223 against and
9 abstentions. And that is the only time in history that the creation
of a work of art was decided by a debate and a roll call vote in a parliament.
Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-95.
100,000 square meters of polypropylene fabric
and 15,600 meters of rope.
you there for the debate?
C: Yes, we
must have been exciting.
C: Very exciting,
and nerve-wracking, and dramatic. You should try to see the film, which
includes minutes of the debate. There are films on nine of our projects.
We are always eager to see the physicality of the work. And we are very
excited that we will be in good health to see the next project.
C: The last
two weeks of February 2005.
J-C: And in
our lectures, even two nights ago in a talk at the New York Law School,
I told them that we have received letters saying: We dont
want you to wrap Central Park; We dont want you to wrap
the river. It is a stupid mistake to think that we wrap everything.
The last time in our lives we had a wish to wrap something was 1975. And
that is when we wanted to wrap the oldest bridge in Paris, the Pont-Neuf.
Also, we had already done Valley Curtain in 72, which the
media called the wrapped curtain, which is idiotic. And we were about
to finish Running Fence, which was done in 76 but started
in 72 and had nothing to do with wrapping.
Running Fence and especially with The Gates, which started
in 1979, our aesthetic moved to an important thing: exploring inner space.
You can walk inside the gates and under the umbrellas. Inner
space started to develop with the 1979 proposal of The Gates.
J-C: But you
will already find it in the 1964 Store Frontinner and outer
C: The curtains hanging
in the storefronts were really the precursors of Valley Curtain and
at the shape of the fabric in Store Front and you see the precursor
of Running Fence.
The Gates has taken from 1979 to 2005 to be realized.
they ask us how we can have so much patience, I always answer, its
not a matter of patience, its a matter of passion.
Jan Garden Castro
is a Sculpture contributing editor.