January 2003: The steel industry was in a slump. At the Charles C. Lewis steel processing plant in Springfield, Massachusetts, president Robert Cournoyer was facing the prospect of layoffs. Then the phone rang with what would turn out to be the largest order in the company’s 118-year history. This has got to be a joke, Cournoyer remembers thinking.
The call came on behalf of New York City artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, no last names. Cournoyer had never heard of them. On the phone, Vince Davenport, a contractor representing the artists, explained the couple’s need to have ten million pounds of steel cut into 15,000 rectangular blocks, or bases. On these bases, the artists planned to erect 7,500 frames, or “gates,” in Central Park. For 16 days starting on February 12, 2005, saffron-colored panels of nylon cloth would wave from these free-standing structures along 23 miles of park walkways. Then, everything—steel bases included—would be dismantled, melted or shredded and recycled. “The whole story was bizarre,” says Cournoyer. “I don’t care how you say it, that’s what it was. It was hard to believe at first.”
“Bizarre” is a word many people have used to describe the artists’ gargantuan, short-lived projects, whether the 18-foothigh by 241¼2-mile-long “running fence” of shimmering white nylon they installed across Northern California ranchland in 1976, the 440,000 square feet of champagne-colored woven synthetic fabric they draped over the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris in 1985, or the 1,076,000 square feet of silvery polypropylene fabric in which they swaddled Germany’s parliament building, the Reichstag, in 1995. Eighteen times in the past 40 years, Christo and his wife and partner, Jeanne-Claude, have created such large-scale, temporary artworks to mostly enthusiastic responses from spectators, and admiration—if sometimes grudging—from art critics.
“I came here expecting not much from the ballyhooed project and found myself swept up in it,” New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman wrote of his visit to Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-95. “ ‘ It’ means the whole giddy affair—the revelers who turned the bleak fields around the Reichstag into Woodstock East, the art students who gathered to sketch the building, the street vendors, the posturing politicos.” The effect was typical, he went on, in that “time and again,” the couple’s projects “have turned doubters into converts.”
To the Christos, the whole process of seeking permissions and persuading skeptics—and, hopefully, astonishing them with the results—is as much a part of the project as the event itself. “The Christos insist on convincing people to allow them to carry their ideas out in places where daily life goes on,” says Elizabeth Broun, director of the SmithsonianAmericanArt Museum. “In that sense their work is entirely pathbreaking.”
Christo calls the projects “irrational and absolutely unnecessary.” This irrationality is linked, he says, “to freedom, which is a very important part of our work.”To ensure that freedom, the artists themselves foot the bill for each endeavor—$15.2 million for Wrapped Reichstag, an estimated $21 million for the Central Park project—through the sale of Christo’s drawings, collages and sculptures. The Christos do not accept grants or corporate underwriting; they live simply and frugally in a building they own in Lower Manhattan. “We don’t buy diamonds, we don’t have an elevator,” Jeanne-Claude likes to say.
It usually takes years for the couple to persuade the community groups, landowners and government agencies to grant the requisite permits for a project. It is this laborious process, Christo says, that “gives all the soul, all the energy to the work. At the start we have some little idea, and then the permitting process gives the feedback. And this is so exciting because it is not invented by us.”
Christo first drew a version of The Gates: Project for Central Park, New York City in 1979. Within a year, the artists were presenting the idea to politicians, arts groups and neighborhood community boards. Harlem, East Harlem and the Upper West Side boards voted yes; Fifth Avenue and Central Park South gave a thumbs down. The New York Times editorialized that “Central Park needs loving hands of restoration, not exploitation.” Finally, in 1981, Gordon Davis, then commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, turned down the project; his 107-page document cited potential harm to a park still reeling from a decade-long bout with crime and neglect.
The artists went on to other projects but kept The Gates idea alive. “They would present their case nicely and politely,” says current parks commissioner Adrian Benepe, then a Manhattan borough parks official and one of several whom the Christos consulted, “and I would explain to them why it wouldn’t work.”
For most of the four decades that the Christos have been New Yorkers, they have lived in a five-story, former factory in the SoHo district of Manhattan. Christo is a highstrung, wiry man with Albert Einstein hair and an air of dreamy disarray. Jeanne-Claude is a force of nature, with big hair dyed Raggedy Ann red, a taste for bons mots and a passion for precision. They call each other “Chérie” and “Mon Amour,” particularly when they are quarreling.