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The Gates of Jeanne-Claude and Christo

The Gates -- Brilliant!

Woke up this morning to read that Jeanne-Claude, the partner of Christo has died of complications of a brain aneurysm after taking a fall. In the words of Manuela Hoelterhoff in Bloomberg this morning: “Like the projects she created over the decades with her husband, Christo, Jeanne-Claude is no longer here, but the memory of her will linger.” They seemed to me to be a product of a former age — and now with this passing they are.

I came to think of the international public art creating duo as Jeanne-Claude Christo as if they were one person. They created art for public spaces such as the Gates, a 23 mile long installation of saffron-colored banners or gates in New York’s Central Park, putting Rauschenberg’s 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece to shame — at least in length.

Naturally they were far from one person because each is so distinct, so individual. She with flaming carrot colored hair, lipstick to match and a constant cigarette, he professorial, spectacles in place looking a bit like a mad pharmacist, must have had many heated, vibrant discussions regarding their projects as they called their creations.

Citizens of the world the couple lived in — of course — New York. But it took many years for then to find a Mayor willing to allow them to install the Gates in Central Park. Many of their projects were like that — taking many years and infinite patience before becoming realities. I often wondered how they supported themselves assuming at one point that they had inherited wealth. In reality they sold the artwork that were byproducts of the designs of their installations. This summer Aurora and I visited Easton Pennsylvania and checked into a fine establishment — the Grand Eastonian Suites Hotel. In the lobby we saw several beautiful design drawings of the Gates. The manager explained that the owners of the hotel were former MNew Yorkers who admired the Gates and therefore had purchased the drawings. They were large, colorful fantasies. But of course these were fantasies made real.

That is the accomplishment of Jeanne-Claude Christo — they made their fantasies real. In that regard and because of the public nature of what they do I am reminded of Philippe Petit, the Man on Wire who walked between New York’s Twin Towers on a tight rope in 1974. And of course she too was French making Christo an honorary Frenchman I suppose (he was born in Bulgaria but had emigrated to France by 1958, the year that the two met)

The Gates was the only Jeanne-Claude Christo installation that I ever saw.  Many of the works of Christo in the early days were wrapped objects, later he wrapped huge buildings and statues creating a new work on top of what was, perhaps, something quite ordinary. In 1993 the couple recognized Jeanne-Claude’s contribution to Christo’s efforts giving her equal billing from that time on.  One of the couples most impressive and difficult projects was wrapping the Pont Neuf  in 444,000 square feet of champagne-colored drapes.

You might ask — to what purpose is all this wrapping and draping. But to ask is to miss the point. As Gary Winograd famously said: “Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed. – Garry Winogrand Or — I take photographs to see how the thing would look in a photograph. Jeanne-Claude and Christo wrapped and draped things to show the world how they would look that way. For me the Gates provided and wonderful reason to stroll through Central Park on a chilly February day meeting people from around the world who were all with me in our amazed , puzzled and ultimately delighted frame of mind. We were drawn out of ourselves by the work of the artists who seemed to extend the New York of Rauschenberg, Dali and Stieglitz into the present time. Dada is not dead as long as people are interested in turning our world, for a moment, on its head. I hope Christo is able to continue the work he did for so many years with Jeanne-Claude at his side. I look forward to his next project.

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