Christo, the Bulgarian-born conceptual artist who created large-scale fleeting art installations with his collaborator and wife, Jeanne-Claude, died of natural causes at his New York City home on Sunday. He was 84 years old.
Together, Christo and Jeanne-Claude realized more than 20 ambitious outdoor artworks. These projects included “wrapping” Berlin’s Reichstag Museum in a silvery, shroud-like fabric; using vivid pink floating fabric to transform eleven islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay into giant lily pads; and wrapping a coastline in Australia with 1 million square feet of fabric and 35 miles of rope. The couple also wrapped parts of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in black, covered Paris’ Pont Neuf bridge and installed a giant orange curtain between two Colorado mountain slopes.
“Christo lived his life to the fullest, not only dreaming up what seemed impossible but realizing it,” says his office in a statement. “Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s artwork brought people together in shared experiences across the globe, and their work lives on in our hearts and memories.”
Following Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009, Christo continued executing their shared artistic vision. In 2016, he oversaw the installation of Floating Piers, a nearly two-mile-long, bright yellow floating walkway that connected a northern Italian island to the mainland, as Jeff MacGregor reported for Smithsonian magazine at the time.
Creating such enormous works required millions of dollars, as well as planning, patience and jumping through countless bureaucratic hoops, writes William Grimes for the New York Times. The artist financed his installations by selling preparatory sketches and scale models. Each work was ephemeral, designed to last just a few weeks or days before disappearing.
Born on June 13, 1935, in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff was known professionally by his first name. Jeanne-Claude, who was born in Morocco on the same day as her future partner, often said, “Both of us at the same hour, but, thank God, two different mothers,” according to the Guardian’s Christopher Turner.
The pair started collaborating in 1961, but Jeanne-Claude was only credited for her equal share in their efforts as of 1994. Previously, reported the Guardian, their artworks simply carried Christo’s name—“apparently because they thought it would be easier for one artist to become established.”
Christo studied at the National Academy of Arts in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. Following brief stints in Prague, Vienna and Geneva, he moved to Paris, where he met Jeanne-Claude in 1958, reports Christianna Silva for NPR. The couple settled down in New York City with their son, Cyril, in 1964.
Shortly after moving to the United States, the pair embarked on a years-long effort to construct Running Fence, a 24.5-mile-long swath of white, billowing curtains of fabric that rippled over the rolling hills of northern California for two weeks in September 1976.
That same year, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired an archive of materials associated with Running Fence, including 11 large-scale drawings, more than 240 documentary photographs, a 68-foot-long scale model and assorted documents related to the work’s creation.
“When [Running Fence] was unveiled during America’s bicentennial, it captured the public’s imagination,” the museum said in a 2008 statement. “The sheer beauty of the light and weather playing across the fabric of the fence stood in sharp contrast to the underlying issue of division and limitations that fences generally convey.”
In one of their most famous installations, Christo and Jeanne-Claude constructed 7,503 steel gates hung with saffron-colored fabric. Measuring 16 feet tall, the structures (officially titled The Gates) stood in New York City’s Central Park for two weeks in 2005. Visitors were able to stroll along 23 miles of footpaths surrounded by the banner-like structures—“a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees,” as the pair noted in a statement.
Speaking with Sculpture magazine’s Jan Garden Castro during The Gates’ run, Christo explained, “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 airy—not heavy like stone, steel, or concrete blocks. They are passing through.”
In an interview conducted last month, Christo spoke “cheerfully,” reported Nicholas Glass for CNN. The artist—hunkered down in his five-story studio and residence in SoHo amid the COVID-19 pandemic—wasn’t leaving the house much, but he did venture to the roof of his building for exercise.
“The air is very clear, the sky very blue, very surreal,” he told CNN.
Christo was greatly looking forward to his next huge project: wrapping the iconic Arc de Triomphe in 270,000 square feet of silvery blue polypropylene fabric and 23,000 feet of red rope, according to the New York Times’ Joshua Barone. Initially planned for April 2020, the installation was postponed due to COVID-19 and will likely only take place in September 2021, according to the artist’s website.
“Nobody needs my projects. … The world can live without these projects. But I need them and my friends [do],” Christo told CNN in May. “I am an artist who is totally irrational, totally irresponsible and completely free.”