Successful Art – With a Twinkle in the Eye

The creative use of space, objects and time is a hallmark of Christo, who passed away on May 31, 2020. Together with his partner Jean-Claude, he evolved the idea of wrapping objects, buildings, and landscapes, transforming them into an art form. Our author Wolfram Höfer, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, reflects on his personal encounters with Christo’s art. A personal farewell.

The Gates, a site-specific work of art by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Central Park, New York City. (Author: Carol M. Highsmith; ID: highsm.15791)

For me, as a landscape architect, Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s art is important because it forced the viewer to see places and landforms differently – and so to discover new qualities. My first personal encounter with their work was the “Wrapped Reichstag” in Berlin in 1995. I had just graduated from college and was working as a landscape planner. Their “Project for Berlin” became my summer event. Christo and Jeanne-Claude transformed the not very architecturally exciting Reichstag building (Wilhelm II-style: over-decorated, clumsy, fat, loaded with a lot of bad German history) into an aesthetically exciting object and created a completely new space. It was fascinating to see how thousands of people were enjoying it every day: examining, discussing, arguing. To me, Christo’s art often shows a witty (and wise) sense of humor that seemed to shine through from under the veil of cloth.

“The perception of the building in Berlin’s urban space has been sustainably changed by Christo”

Today, the “Wrapped Reichstag” is history and the building again serves its original purpose as Germany’s parliament. But since then, the perception of the building in Berlin’s urban space has been sustainably changed by Christo. His veiling was a revelation for many, taking away part of the building’s historic encumbrance and creating unforgettable images.

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In 1999 and in 2013 I had the opportunity to see Christo’s installations at the Gasometer in Oberhausen. During both projects, his playful dealing with space and scale were remarkable and memorable. The 1999 “Wall of Oil Barrels” and the 2013 “Big Air Package” delivered a sublime perception of three-dimensional space inside this former industrial building. Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s installation made it possible to experience what “absolutely great” really feels like. As a footnote – these two projects were their only land-art installations inside an exhibition venue. On all other occasions the artist couple only used exhibition spaces to present objects from the preparation of their projects – these objects pointed at the final ‘product’, but did not physically show it.

“I was blown away by the beauty and spatial experience.”

In 2005, when I walked the “Gates” project in New York City’s Central Park, I just loved their work (as before in Berlin and Oberhausen). I was flirting with the idea of moving to the U.S. and was blown away by the beauty and spatial experience moving through their perfectly placed orange gates and the shiny orange fabric. The paths they chose for the “Gates” modeled a landscape out of Central Park in wintery light that was beautifully sublime. It created a joyful walking experience and cast Central Park in a completely different light. Today, another layer of appreciation adds to my relationship to Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s oeuvre. After 15 years of working in the tristate area surrounding New York City (NYC), I now see a new dimension of their art: making projects become reality. Bureaucracy is a global phenomenon, but in this respect as in many others, NYC is exceptional: political minefields and trench warfare render decision making a debilitatingly slow snail-paced race. Only a stellar mix of stamina, patience, wit, and stubbornness could bring the city administration and Central Park Conservancy (who were extremely critical of any installation because they feared for damage to the park due to the bracings for the gates) to one table that lead to the installation – eventually.

The Serpentine Mastaba in London by Christo. (Author: Giogo; via wikicommons)

In the aftermath, “The Gates” was an amazing success for Central Park. No damage was done to anything in the park, amazing public relations were generated worldwide, plus a generous donation to the Park Administration by Christo and Jeanne-Claude made the decision to allow this exception a wise move. It took Christo and Jeanne-Claude 25 years to implement “The Gates” – but this kind of stamina was an essential part of their artistic work. Without their endurance all their ideas would have remained just nice dreams.

“He sees himself as an educated Marxist who knows how to use the capitalist system for his art.”

Finally: Who has paid for all this? Christo and Jeanne-Claude! Through the sale of posters and other merchandise related to their studies for the different projects, they were able to finance their projects without any public or private support from third parties. From Jeanne-Claude’s perspective, their projects became particularly powerful because they were available to everyone, but only temporary and could not be purchased or owned. The New York Times wrote, quoting Christo, that he sees himself as an educated Marxist who knows how to use the capitalist system for his art.

“Certain components of landscape architecture can take inspiration from Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s work”

Landscape architecture is no ‘free art’, but certain components of landscape architecture can take inspiration from Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s work. Their design always referred to a spatial context; interventions were never only self-reflecting – they always turned into a new meaning for each space that went beyond the transient physical art itself.

Today, when I remember the artworks of Christo and Jeanne-Claude that I personally had the opportunity to witness and experience, it seems to me that they both look at the viewer through their art – with a twinkle in their eyes – saying: Enjoy life and allow yourself to see things differently! Discover the new in the seemingly well-known!