Christo, who passed away last month at the age of 84, had a lot in common with some other famous one-namers. Like Ozymandias, he’s remembered for building big, eye-catching things that don’t exist anymore. Like Cher, he was around for most of the back half of the 20th century and a good chunk of 21st, during which he managed to be consistently successful, beloved by some, yet somehow not quite essential. He had Liberace’s taste in fabrics and Leonardo’s sycophancy, which came in handy when dealing with city hall. He gave free art to people who didn’t ask for it and in many cases found it wildly annoying, but he seems to have been a genuinely nice guy, in which sense he bears an uncanny resemblance to Bono.
Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, born in Bulgaria in 1935, had talent in abundance but none for the visual arts. If this sounds like a nasty way to speak of the dead, I refer you to almost any one of his hundreds of interviews. “These projects are totally irrational, totally useless, have no reason to exist. Nobody needs these projects.” he told Jonathan Fineberg in The Brooklyn Rail two years ago. This wasn’t playful modesty — this was the belief that underlaid his entire career. The time required to plan public art projects beggared the time during which these projects could be seen; by the same token, the artistry of the planning towered invisibly over the artistry of the final product. “The Gates,” the jumpsuit-orange folly that decorated Central Park for fifteen days in the winter of 2005, took a full quarter-century of negotiating and fundraising to execute. This seemed not to trouble Christo. “The journey,” he told Fineberg, “is so exciting — not only the realized things. In 1972 he struck a similar note in an interview for The New York Times “For me esthetics is everything involved in the process — the workers, the politics, the negotiations, the construction difficulty, the dealings with hundreds of people.”
Observations like these help explain why Christo — along with his wife and creative partner, Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009 — was willing to invest mountains of brainpower, persuasion, and charisma in their art, and why the results were consistently hideous. In 50 years, he and Jeanne-Claude succeeded in realizing twenty-three of sixty-or-so proposed projects — not a bad batting average when you consider they always tried to do the near-impossible. To the extent that their works were at all interesting, they were portraits of modern bureaucracy, decades-spanning case studies of a system supposedly designed to help people but in fact built for gridlock. But because the behind-the-scenes process was slow, murky, and in some cases classified, people instead heaped praise and attention on art that was hilariously undeserving of either. The dumpy orange bike path in Central Park was rebranded “saffron.” It was said to be a witty homage to Japanese torii architecture instead of a graceless perversion.
Do I sound as if I dislike Christo? No — if only I were strong enough. In the series of documentaries on Christo and Jeanne-Claude that the Maysles Brothers shot between 1974 and 1994, the couple comes off as irresistibly charming. They’re calm, patient, adapt at dumbing down their proposals for city councilmen on their lunch breaks. They know how to drop words like “democracy” or “family,” and whenever they compare their art to something else, it’s something meek and pretty like a rainbow or a Monet waterlily. In Christo’s 2018 Times Talk, he has the audience in his pocket by the five-minute mark. You can smell the goodwill in the room, even when nobody understands what he’s saying — who could resist a cute old man with white hair who refuses a chair because he’s too jazzed about art? I thought of a line from Philip Lopate’s essay, “Against Joie De Vivre”: “Yet you still hear an old woman or man telling a bus driver with a chuckle, ‘Would you believe that I am 84 years old!’ As though they should be patted on the back for still knowing how to talk, or as though they had pulled a practical joke on the other riders by staying so spry and mobile. Such insecure, wheedling behavior always embarrassed me.”
Christo’s career was premised on being harmless and likeable to everyone, which is very unlikable indeed (yes, he canceled a project after Trump’s election, but even a broken clock is right twice a day). Over the last five decades, as charisma became the new talent and the art market got harder and harder to distinguish from the market itself, he glided serenely over all, skirting controversies and charming politicians the world over. The Forrest Gump of recent art history, he spent much of his life kissing up to bureaucrats who were equal parts banal and bombastic and whose tastes he satisfied only too well. His career — thin, but fascinatingly so — was something like a seismograph for the collisions of art and power.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Christo’s art was taken as satire of anything, let alone of Western decadence. Like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, he made big, bright art that babbled on in the language of advertising with a fluency that some mistook for incisiveness. Surely his 1961 piece “Dockside Packages,” which featured mysterious objects dramatically covered in tarpaulins, had to be some kind of poke at consumerism — surely it was saying something about packaging and paper-thin surfaces, instead of mindlessly repeating them. This narrative was all but irresistible for early critics, all the more so since Christo grew up behind the Iron Curtain, suckled on agitprop and Social Realism.
Christo, to his credit, never claimed his work satirized anything; he said he was interested in pure spectacle. But with nothing too original to contribute in the spectacle department, his works often felt like taxidermized histories of the avant-garde, lifeless styles frozen in awkward poses. The inviting kitsch of his wrapped buildings was pure Pop; the counterintuitive material thing had already been done to death by Oppenheim and other Surrealists; the scale suggested land art; the combination of monumentality and ephemerality suggested GUN and The Play. No, his work didn’t mean anything, but it evoked plenty of art that had meant things. Often, he chose locations so weighed down with historical import they couldn’t help but lend his work a certain gravitas. In 1995, after two decades of trying, he succeeded in wrapping the Reichstag in shimmering aluminum fabric. Officials and critics debated whether the gesture symbolized Germany’s dark past or its bright future, never seriously doubting that it symbolized something.
By any numerical measure, “Wrapped Reichstag” was a huge success. In a mere two weeks, five million people gathered to see Berlin’s most familiar building rendered briefly unfamiliar, alien, new. Christo liked to cite these numbers as proof of his populist credentials — not unreasonably, though the word “populist” needs some clarifying. It’s not so much that his work was straightforward or easy to like — people argued over what it meant, whether it meant anything, whether it was any good, etc. Christo was a populist for the simple reason that anybody could enjoy his art for free. This — especially at a time when most art is locked in museums nobody is allowed to enter, following years of those same museums slashing their free days and pumping up ticket prices — is sufficient cause to mourn his passing.
Few of the people who enjoyed Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work knew where the money came from. The artists accepted no government grants (a key reason why governments kept cooperating with them), which meant that their multi-million-dollar artworks had to be funded out of their own pockets. In practice, this meant selling small, permanent pieces to the one percent — in other words, the populist stunts were paid for with insider business-as-usual. Museums and private collectors were delighted to buy sketches of an upcoming Christo folly. The return on their investments was sure to be handsome, in part because of Christo’s fame and in part because the sketches, drawn in the artist’s own hand, would grow more alluring when there was no folly left to see. The folly itself wasn’t a disruption of the market; it was both culmination and afterthought, too elusive to sell and too big to fail. (Last year, when trustees donated a collection of preparatory drawings to the Peréz Art Museum Miami, not far from the site of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 1983 installation “Surrounded Islands,” the drawings were valued at three million dollars.)
Despite all this, critics will occasionally suggest that Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work was some kind of victory over the establishment whose favor they painstakingly cultivated. This view makes a certain degree of sense — you don’t spend 20 years on a project unless you’re struggling against something. But duration doesn’t prove resistance to the idea of the artworks, just as ten long years don’t prove resistance to the idea of rebuilding the World Trade Center. Christo and Jeanne-Claude took decades to realize their visions, not because they had to convince political elites to like them but because they always colored within the lines; because they had to secure permission from dozens of independent councils and committees and subcommittees — basically, because bureaucracy is bureaucratic. Political elites liked their art just fine. It was family-friendly, “visible,” superficially bold yet utterly safe—as flashy and substance-less as the elites themselves.
“Avant-gardism,” the critic Manny Farber wrote, “has fallen into the hands of the businessman-artist […] The brains behind his creativity are those of a high-powered salesman using empty tricks and skills to push an item for which he has no feeling or belief.” That was in 1957. By “businessman-artist,” Farber meant people like Franz Kline, Stan Getz, and Elia Kazan — second-raters in his view, but still blessed with an undeniable amount of creativity and skill. Christo was not a businessman-artist. He was a businessman. His projects, commercials for the cities that facilitated them, lacked even the modest flair with which Farber was willing to credit Kline or Kazan, but as business ventures they succeeded far beyond the bounds of Farber’s analogy. “The Gates” alone generated something like a quarter of a billion dollars in economic activity for New York City (this on top of the seven-figure rent paid upfront). In doing so, he made himself famous and his investors enough money to last many lifetimes. All this in return for two weeks of free — bizarre, garish, maladroit, but still, for all that, free — content.
Last week I watched a Black Lives Matter protester spray “B.L.M” on the side of a building. A minute or two later, he was running from the cops, pepper spray dribbling down his cheeks. This is the kind of performance Christo spent his life suavely avoiding. His own defacements of public property had everyone’s support, and in return for his cooperation with the authorities, he became a household name. But with neither his art nor the force of his personality to keep the conversation chugging along, I doubt anyone will be talking about him twenty years from now. Meanwhile, a different kind of public spectacle sweeps across the country. It’s monumental yet ephemeral, and it dresses itself in a rhetoric of democracy and freedom. Unlike Christo’s work, however, it has little respect for civic authority. It is suspicious of property rights. It is not interested in being likeable. It has reason to exist.
Jackson Arn is a contributing art critic for The Forward.