Christo And Jeanne-Claude: An Extraordinary Partnership

One of the most salient qualities about the 51-year relationship between Christo and Jeanne-Claude is that they were true partners. Theirs was no artist/muse codependency, nor the union of a creative soul and his harried helpmate. This pair was equal.

As Christo and Jeanne-Claude put it in an interview with the Journal of Contemporary Art:

Gianfranco Mantegna: Of your many projects the Reichstag wrapping is the one that took the most time to be realized: nearly 23 years, right? Did you ever think that it would not happen? Why the Reichstag? And what inspired you?

Christo: First of all, you should understand that this is not only my project, it's also Jeanne-Claude's, all I do myself are the drawings . . .

Jeanne-Claude: The only things I do myself is write the checks, pay the bills and pay the taxes. Everything else is Christo and Jeanne-Claude, including the creativity. It's about time that people correct this mistake.

So. Conceptually, logistically, and creatively, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were more or less indivisible. We probably shouldn't think this kind of radically egalitarian relationship terribly unusual, in this day and age, when feminism's various well-advertised social and legislative victories have supposedly left us all more equal in life and in relationships than ever before. But isn't it wonderful to be reminded that a couple where both members were born (coincidentally, on the same day) in 1935 could see no better way of working together, than to work together?

Especially in the world of visual art, where women involved with great artists have traditionally been consigned to the role of "muse." Art hinges on the idea of a single creator, and his or her (but usually his) creative vision: that's why Guernica is art, and those scenic paintings done painstakingly by hand in workshops in China are not. Art historians argue for years over whether a work should be classified as by, for instance, El Greco, or if it was merely done by one of his trainees, because art affirms that the intentions and identity of a work's creator matters. Even in a collaboration, a partnership, as apparently straightforward as that of Christo's and Jeanne-Claude, the temptation is always to ask: but who really thought of that? (And then there is the further temptation to assume that it must have been Christo.) His refusal to play along — look at how he corrected that interviewer — is admirable.

Although before the Reichstag project, in 1994, all of their works had been presented under only Christo's name, the couple always maintained that the aesthetic burden was shared throughout their lives. (In fact, in 1968, Christo and Jeanne-Claude separately oversaw two simultaneous wrapping projects in different parts of Europe.) Although Christo had been wrapping small objects, like chairs and bottles, in fabric before he met Jeanne-Claude, he had never before attempted a project on the scale of a building before. From that point on, there's basically no point asking whose idea was which, although Jeanne-Claude has been credited with thinking of swaddling the islands of Biscayne Bay in pink fabric, which became the Surrounded Islands work of 1983.

Together, they fought bureaucracy. (The Gates succeeded after 22 years of official opposition to the idea of erecting 7,500 16 ft. tall gates swathed in orange nylon in Central Park; permission to wrap the Reichstag in Berlin wasn't granted for 24 years.) Jeanne-Claude told the New Yorker in 2004, "Probably the most difficult one for us, the one we would not want to go through ever again, was the Pont Neuf." That project, realized in 1985, took a decade of wrangling. "Our permit to wrap Pont Neuf depended on two men who never agreed on anything. One was the President of France, François Mitterrand, and the other was the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, who wanted to become president, and later did. There was an election coming up in 1986, and they were playing Ping-Pong with us, and we were the balls." Together, they financed the cost of all of their great environmental art projects themselves — no mean feat, given that The Gates cost an estimated $20 million. (The couple's usual method was to sell Christo's sketches to raise the necessary capital. They have apparently always felt that accepting grants or sponsorship would corrupt their working process.)

That fund-raising process was well underway for "Over The River," Christo and Jeanne-Claude's next project, which had been more than a decade in the planning stages when Jeanne-Claude's death, from a brain aneurysm, was announced this morning. Christo says he will continue without her. The idea is for nearly 6-mile long fabric panels to stretch across the top of the Arkansas River gorge in Colorado. Recreational boaters and other users of the river will be able to look up and see the sky through the panels, but from above, the river will look — for two weeks — silvery, flat and opaque. The earliest this might happen, the artists have said, is the summer of 2011.

So these two, who functioned as one, are now only one. Their long companionate marriage is over. I certainly hope that Over The River, when it is erected, can stand as a tribute to the two of them and all they shared.

Christo And Jeanne-Claude [Journal of Contemporary Art]
Lishui, China's Ancient Weir Art Village [New Yorker]
Over The River [Christo and Jeanne-Claude]
Gates To The City [New Yorker]