By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST February, 2021
It was Charles Wilp, a Dusseldorf-based artpreneur, who connected me with the Christos in 1962. Knowing that my long-time neighbour and close friend in the Pheasantry on the Kings Road, London, was a fashion photographer, he called to tell me the artist planned to wrap a naked woman. Could I recruit a participant? Christo had had an ambitious show of wrapped packages on the Cologne waterfront the year before, Ruth, a gutsy model, was up for it and Wilp brought Christo and Jeanne-Claude to my studio for the shoot. Christo is on the right in my photograph.
I saw them soon after in their Paris home on an islet on the Seine. Christo Javacheff, an immigrant, half Bulgarian and half Czech, with a magic wrist for catching a likeness, met Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon, daughter of a French general, when he had been commissioned to paint her mother. Their attachment was instant, magnetic. Jeanne-Claude’s parents let her know that this was by no means the sort of match they had in mind for her but it became one of the most durable unions I have known, in the art world or out of it.
The first Christo project I wrote about was Running Fence, a ribbon of white nylon, that ran for 24.5 miles over the hills of Sonoma and Marin in Northern California. Christo kicked off this project in 1972. I took in other legal processes, which included three sessions of California Supreme Court and an Environmental Impact Report, thick as a telephone directory and I went to several public hearings during one of which a local rancher told me “If they can stop Mr Christo from building his fence they’ll stop me from building my fences”. Christo and Jeanne-Claude saw this procedural duress as absolutely part of the creative anatomy of all their projects, both those that came to fruition and those – way more numerous – which were squelched. Running Fence was built in 1976. By which time both the Christos and I had moved to New York.
The Christos’ embrace of arduous process was not their only uncommon procedure. Christo never had a primary dealer. Nor would he accept subsidies or grants for a project, but would raise the budget for each – invariably several millions – from selling the drawings, collages, models that each generated to a network of collectors and dealers. That magic wrist. Also, they would never repeat a hit. Christo and Jeanne-Claude first proposed The Gates, a 16 day installation of eighteen foot saffron banners along 23 miles of Central Park walkways, in 1979. The vehement opposition, which included a stern editorial inThe New York Times, didn’t stop until the project was okayed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2005. The Gates got four million visitors and pumped $254 million into the city economy. The Christos, of course, got juicy offers from cities nationwide. And they turned them down. Again of course.
It was during the Running Fence project that Christo and Jeanne-Claude took me to meet the Charles Schulz, the late creator of Peanuts, who had a home in the county capital, Santa Rosa. We had coffee in Snoopy mugs and wiped our lips on Charlie Brown and Lucy napkins. This was before the explosion of branding, he was just fond of his creations. He liked the Christos too, indeed had spoken up at one of the hearings to say he was surprised by the local opposition to the project.
Indeed a few years later he put himself on the record to that effect in Peanuts. "We were making Wrapped Walkways in Kansas City, Missouri,” Jeanne-Claude told me. ‘In the first panel of the cartoon, Snoopy says, "I remember when Christo hung the Valley Curtain in Colorado." In the second square he says, "I loved the Running Fence in California and the Wrapped Walkways in Kansas City" and in the third square he gets up and starts walking. "I wonder what he will do next?" The final panel shows little Snoopy with a very astonished and sad face -- his dog-house is completely wrapped up."
So that the Christos had something of a cartoon sensibility was clear and it was and remains warming that they should have bought mine. Four of them are part of the Christo collection now being auctioned by Sotheby’s, Paris, and the sale is in Paris because their last project is the wrap of L’Arc de Triomphe, and I say “their”, by the way, because in recent years Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been jointly credited for the oeuvre. Jeanne-Claude died in 2009. Christo, who continued to speak of Jeanne-Claude in the present tense, died last year. The wrap of L’Arc de Triomphe will be concluded by their studio. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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