Jeanne-Claude — Christo’s collaborator and partner — died today in Manhattan at the age of 74. It was fitting, in a way, not only because the artist pair have been residents of the city since 1964, but because their last big completed project was “The Gates,” which turned Central Park’s walkways into a series of orange vinyl doorways and drapes, portways of color livening up an especially dreary winter.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been shorthanded as the people who “wrap” things, which only goes so far. A bigger part of their projects was to rendering the familiar temporarily strange, whether by covering a bridge’s familiar outlines in fabric or by transforming it into an ominous new bulk.
Six times, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects have been documented by Albert Maysles (“Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens”) and, before his death, his brother David. Besides capturing some memorable, deliberately ephemeral artwork in their wind-breathing majesty, the movies made it very clear that the projects, which could take forever to get all the necessary permits for (26 years in the case of “The Gates”), were at least as much about documenting the daily business of bureaucracy and paperwork as the final project. Bureaucracy was something Christo, a refugee of communist Czechoslovakia, surely knows a bit about. In capturing that oft-tedious process, the Maysles were full collaborators on the projects, which were at least as much illuminations of modern government machines as anything.
I saw them speak once, as a freshman at NYU, a few months before “The Gates” was scheduled to be unveiled. As on film, Jeanne-Claude could be abrasive, dismissive, pushy and just a little unlikable; she was also, it was clear, fiercely protective of and indispensable to Christo, doing most of the talking and buffering he clearly didn’t want to get sucked into. It was a pleasure and privilege to see such an iron-glued professional/personal partnership.
What was perhaps most remarkable about their seemingly esoteric projects were the levels of sheer glee they could inspire in civilians who would normally never give the time of day to anything remotely “arty” or “abstract.” When I went to “The Gates” twice, I heard nary a cross word. That’s another thing the Maysles documented.
Below is part one of 1974’s “Christo’s Valley Curtain,” a 28-minute document of the process of setting up a, well, hanging curtain across Colorado’s Valley Gap. When you have time, you really should sit down and watch all of it: as it goes on, it becomes an intensely intimate collaboration between Christo, Jeanne-Claude and a series of professional but at first deeply skeptical construction workers just there for the paycheck. When it’s time to make it work and the curtain comes down, their ebullient cheers are unforgettable. That Christo and Jeanne-Claude got pretty much anyone to think differently about what art could do for them is one of their biggest achievements. R.I.P. Jeanne-Claude; it was one amazing collaboration.
[Photo: “The Gates,” Lorber HT Digital, 2005]