Artist Jeanne-Claude has died suddenly. She lived a full life. May she now wrap Heaven in shimmering fabrics
Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebone, wife and artistic partner of Christo, died suddenly Wednesday, November 19, 2009, in Manhattan, where she had lived with Christo since 1964. A statement on the couple’s website said that she died of a ruptured brain aneurysm. She was 74. I met her several times throughout the years and found her both enchanting and frank–hallmarks of a strong woman. The last time we met was in mid-September at “The Running Fence at 33” gathering, when she and Christo spent the afternoon in Valley Ford reminiscing with old friends about “The Running Fence,” which graced our California coastline 33 years earlier. German filmmaker Wolfram Hissen was there shooting a documentary film about the fence and George Gurney, deputy chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum was also there preparing for “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76, A Documentation Exhibition,” which opens April 2, 2010, in Washington and will travel nationally.
Looking back at that lovely event, I am thankful that I had the chance to greet her again and that she was able to visit with friends who were part of her formative years. She said several times that afternoon that she felt as if she had “come home.” When I wrote about the gathering, my headline pointed to what was coming “..we’re all older but the fence lives on..” Many of the farmers who had given the young couple permission to put the fence up on their property had passed away and most of the people at the gathering were well over 50. Talking about the fence took us all back to our youthful days. Jeanne-Claude was happy and spoke excitedly about their new project “Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado.” which had suffered the standard bureaucratic and funding snafus that accompany these immense temporal projects. Her red-orange hair—reminiscent of the cotton candy hair of a clown– seemed brighter than it had ever been before. She signed autographs and poured over pictures and maps. She spoke graciously with strangers and lovingly with dear friends. And, like a little girl, she snuck a cigarette with an old friend and told us not to photograph her smoking because she didn’t want to be seen promoting something that was unhealthy.
I have always been fascinated by artist couples who manage to pull it off—a loving marriage, a creative partnership and fame. Their collaborative approach, which I had heard them describe a few times in the 1990’s, always left me hungering for more information. It was described as follows–Christo and Jeanne-Claude would come up with an idea and he would prepare drawings, scale models and descriptive items that could be sold to realize the full-scale project. She was a driving force in other ways, particularly with financial affairs, permitting and when the project was going up on site– The only problem with this explanation was that it seemed to contradict an earlier history of sole attribution to Christo that had been in practice from the 1960’s through the 1980’s.
Around the time the Wrapped Reichstag project (1971-95) was nearing its completion– about 1994—Christo and Jeanne-Claude began to insist on retroactive joint attribution of all artworks from the 1960’s onwards that had previously been attributed to Christo. They essentially re-branded themselves. Before, they asserted they had been ”Christo” and now they were instead “Christo and Jeanne-Claude.” The problem I see in that is that it does not answer when or how she began to think of herself an as artist and it clashes with earlier comments Christo made about his artistic process. In my mind, a large part of making art is declarative–asserting that what you are doing is art when you are doing it. It is less powerful when it comes 30 years after the fact.
So in the 1990’s, it was asserted frequently that she and he shared equally in the creative process. At other times during this period, Christo spoke of himself as the artist, the one who had absolute control over all the decisions. There are quotes to back-up competing interpretations. Their website has a section called “Common Errors” which explains it this way: “In 1994 they decided to officially change the artist name Christo into: the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. They have been working together since their first outdoor temporary work: “Dockside Packages, Cologne Harbor, 1961.” Because Christo was already an artist when they met in 1958 in Paris, and Jeanne-Claude was not an artist then, they have decided that their name will be ” Christo and Jeanne-Claude”, NOT Jeanne-Claude and Christo.”
Nice dodge. I would have loved to have spoken with them about the topic of authorship, though I suspect the conversation would not have been an easy one. I suspect the truth is that they struggled with this and reached some negotiated decision and then set it aside and got back to work, which they seemed to thrive on.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude met in Paris, France, in November, 1958—Christo Javachef, a native Bulgarian from Gabrovo, was a young impoverished refugee artist, who had recognized artistic talent and had already wrapped a few things. She was born in Casablanca, Morocco, where her father, Major Léon Denat was in the French military. Her mother, Précilda, divorced Denat after Jeanne-Claude’s birth and remarried three times. During WWII, Jeanne-Claude lived with her father’s family while her mother fought in the French Resistance. In 1946, Précilda married the influential General Jacques de Guillebon and the family led a priviledged life in Berne from 1948 to 1951, then in Tunisia from 1952 to 1957. In 1957 they returned to Paris and lived in comfort. Jeanne-Claude earned a baccalaureate in Latin and philosophy in 1952 from the University of Tunis.
Jeanne-Claude met Christo in Paris in 1958 while she–a young debutant– was enagaged to be married and he was painting a portrait of her mother. It is well-known that Christo invited her to his place to see his real artwork—sculptural pieces which were a series of wrapped found objects—and that she thought he was crazy but she was hooked. She became pregnant by Christo but married her fiance, an older man, and then divorced him immediately and took up with Christo, delivering their child Cyril in 1960. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The couple not only share the same birthday but the same time of birth on June 13, 1935. They emigrated to New York from Paris in 1964 and worked together for over 40 years creating temporary artistic interventions involving covering, wrapping or altering landscapes. Iconic best describes their impact. Many people I have spoken with have mentioned a sense of the spiritual and others see it as a kind of architectural humor. Whatever the reaction, is it deep and memorable–no one walks away from one of their installations without being stirred. Their projects have been immortalized in six films by filmmaker Albert Maysles, whose first film “Christo’s Valley Curtain” was nominated for an oscar. German filmmaker Wolfram Hissen also paid homage to the couple with his 1996 film “To the German People: The Wrapped Reichstag.”
My favorites of their 18 realized projects are “ Running Fence” (1972-74), “Pont Neuf Wrapped” (Paris, 1975-85) and “Wrapped Reichstag” (Berlin, 1971-1995)—all of which required years of planning and lengthy campaigns to obtain the necessary permits. In September, Jeanne-Claude, with a mixture of pride and weariness, reminisced about the tenacity these bureaucratic interfaces required, particularly “The Running Fence” which was one of their earliest big projects. I think it is fair to say that everyone in attendance at the event was proud that Christo and Jeanne-Claude had cut their teeth for these projects here on our home turf. And, what a battle it was– they perservered and, in the end, created the most lyrical outdoor intervention ever.
While the couple were long-term residents of New York, “The Gates” (1979-2005) was the only project they succeeded in installing in New York City, in Central Park. They signed a 43 page contract with the city of New York before they could install the 7,503 orange fabric panels of varying heights that graced Central Park for 16 days.
The couple’s website is the best place to read about their work. Whatever they have declared about the change from “Christo” to “Christo and Jeanne-Claude”, the institutions that house the artworks done by Christo’s hand have not followed suit with retroactive joint attribution. That may or may not be important to Christo, who survives his wife and, according to their website, plans to continue on creating in both their names.
SFMOMA has a number of photos and drawings by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in their collection with attribution solely to Christo Javacheff. Images of ”The Running Fence” dominate their Christo holdings and were accessioned in 1977, a year after the project was realized. None of these are currently on display. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) has 22 of Christo’s drawings, attributed solely to Christo (Christo Javacheff). Ditto for the Smithsonian American Art Museum which in 2008 acquired the complete documentation of “The Running Fence.” The title of the exhibition does credit Jeanne-Claude—“Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76, A Documentation Exhibition.”
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s artworks are temporary and immortal, living on in our dreams long after they have been taken down. As a new cycle now begins for Jeanne-Claude that is even richer than her time here on earth, may she smile as she wraps heaven in shimmering fabrics.