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Christo and Jeanne-Claude - 1

Christo and Jeanne-Claude


Nomads of Art


Ahead of the release of his new book Christo and Jeanne-Claude: In/Out Studio, the artists' close friend Matthias Koddenberg reflects on the home, studio, and life they shared.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude at their home, New York, 1970. Photo: Shunk-Kender
Christo and Jeanne-Claude at their home, New York, 1970. Photo: Shunk-Kender

When I think of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, I cannot help but also think of the building which used to be their home for 56 years. That building on Howard Street, which is inextricably linked to their art and life. That smell, the scent of Jeanne-Claude's perfume, which exuded from every pore in their house even after her passing. That Mozart CD, which played on a loop and drove all visitors to despair as soon as they had to listen to it five times over. That creaking sound of the old wooden staircase, which Christo and Jeanne-Claude, as well as countless guests, friends, and collectors, climbed up and down during all those years. "Five floors! No elevator!" I don’t know how many times I heard those words—always uttered with a mixture of pride, devotion, and a flicker of sly satisfaction in outshining other visitors who were not accustomed to walking any distance, however small. To me, 48 Howard Street has an aura like no other building.

When Christo and Jeanne-Claude arrived at the Port of New York on board the S.S. France in 1964, their only possessions were two mattresses and a Rietveld chair that Christo, an awed admirer of the designer, had gotten in exchange for one of his own works. That chair became their first "housemate" in the old disused 19th-century factory they moved into—aside from the army of mice they encountered there. Before buying the entire building, they rented two floors in it, each for $70 a month, which served as living space, studio, office, headquarters, and creative hub. Most importantly, it became a home to the two artists, who, like nomads, had never had a home before. After escaping Bulgaria's Communist regime in January 1957, Christo became a wanderer in spite of himself, drifting from place to place. To him, building a life in New York was the only logical consequence. "It is the most ruthless and rootless city, and when we are all so rootless it becomes the only place which gives us a true image of life."

Christo in his studio working on a preparatory drawing for "L
Christo in his studio working on a preparatory drawing for "L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped," New York, 2020. Photo: Anastas Petkov

When Christo passed away in May last year, I felt no different than I had after Jeanne-Claude's death: the most painful aspect was not so much the disappearance of one of the most eminent and inspiring artists of the 20th and 21st centuries as the loss of a human being who is sorely missed and to whom I owe so much. Christo's wry smile, his childlike naiveté, his fiery temper. Christo and Jeanne-Claude's art and life were inextricably intertwined, and they took an uncompromising approach to both. Sometimes, their intransigence pushed those who worked with them close to breaking point. But despite this self-centered attitude, their projects always had a profoundly collective focus. Thanks to his Marxist education, Christo firmly believed in the dialectical forces of history, adding a social dimension to everything he did by involving a broad spectrum of people: farmers, construction workers, engineers, attorneys, politicians, etc. Christo and Jeanne-Claude's art did not consist in what the public ultimately got to see. It was the entire process that mattered and that was significant. The work carried out in the studio. The energy and emotion generated by continuous dialogue, disagreement, and discussion about a given project, by weighing the pros and cons, engaging in negotiations, overcoming technical, legal, and political challenges, by failure and success. This is the crucial point: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects were perhaps not so much works of art as architecture and urban planning. They didn't exist because a politician, businessman, or collector commissioned them. They existed as an idée fixe of two artists who devoted their life to them and who spent their money, time, and effort on them. Their art was no illusion, no fiction, no abstraction. It was one big social experiment. A parable of the state of society and politics. Christo and Jeanne-Claude consistently steered clear of talking about the meaning of their works. "The project builds its own reality, which is beyond anything I can imagine. The project is teasing society and society responds in a way, as it responds in a very normal situation like building bridges, or roads, or highways. What we know is different is that all this energy is put to a fantastic irrational purpose, and that is the essence of the work." If Christo and Jeanne-Claude ever had an objective, it was to enhance people’s understanding of the inner workings of society and of their own lives, to make them reflect on their relationships, their daily routines, and the role they play in society. Ultimately, this is also the reason why their projects were limited in time. For Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the artwork itself no longer had any relevance once it had fulfilled its purpose in the here and now, once it had changed people’s mindset in one way or another. "I don’t believe any work of art exists outside of its prime time, when the artist likes to do it, when the social, political, economic times fit together."

Christo and Jeanne-Claude set up their temporary projects just as nomads set up their tents. But even though their art was ephemeral, their work has left traces that will not disappear any time soon. They are forever connected to the locations and their histories and cannot be separated from them. They live on in people’s minds—in those of admirers and critics alike.

Christo, "L
Christo, "L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped (Project for Paris) Place de l'Etoile – Charles de Gaulle." Drawing 2020 in two parts. Photo: André Grossmann
Published April 29, 2021


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