In 1961, the Bulgarian-born artist Christo and his future wife, Jeanne-Claude, adorned the docks of Cologne, Germany, with a collection of stacked oil drums and rolls of industrial paper wrapped in tarpaulin. It was the first of many colorful public pieces they would create over the next 48 years. Together, Jeanne-Claude and Christo became famous for enormous, fabric-based works, among them The Gates, consisting of 7,503 orange nylon panels that hung from as many vinyl gates in New York City’s Central Park.
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The daughter of a French general, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon was born in Casablanca, Morocco, said The Washington Post. She met Christo—whose full name is Christo Vladimirov Javacheff—in Paris in 1958. Soon they were lovers. “Jeanne-Claude was pregnant with Christo’s child in 1959 when she married Philippe Planchon, deemed by her family a more suitable match. She left her marriage after just three weeks because, she said, “His key didn’t fit my lock.” Christo and Jeanne-Claude married after their son, Cyril, was born in 1960, settling in New York in 1964.
Soon, the two were collaborating on audacious public installations involving textiles, said The Wall Street Journal. “She personally took charge of wrapping a fountain and medieval tower in Spoleto, Italy, in 1968, at the same moment Christo wrapped an art museum in Bern, Switzerland.” In 1976 they put up “the 18-foot-high, 24-mile-long Running Fence in California,” composed of 2,050 white fabric panels; in 1983 they draped 6.4 million square feet of bright pink polypropylene fabric around 11 islands in Florida’s Biscayne Bay to create Surrounded Islands. They used the same material, in silver, when they wrapped Berlin’s Reichstag in 1995. The two worked so closely that the flame-haired Jeanne-Claude often said there were only three things they never did together: “fly in an airplane (they took separate flights); make sketches (Christo’s job); and manage their taxes (Jeanne-Claude’s job).”
Jeanne-Claude and Christo claimed no deep meaning for their work, said The New York Times. “Our art has absolutely no purpose, except to be a work of art,” Jeanne-Claude once said. “We do not give messages.” Not everyone approved of their pieces: Though they first approached New York with The Gates in 1979, bureaucratic hurdles delayed the project until 2005. But when it finally materialized, laid out over 23 miles, some 5 million people showed up to see it. The Gates was credited with injecting about $254 million into the local economy; it was dismantled after 16 days and most of its materials recycled. “We wish our works to be temporary,” Jeanne-Claude said. “We have love and tenderness for our lives because we know it will not last. This quality of love and tenderness, we wish to give it to our work of art as an additional aesthetic quality.”
At the time of Jeanne-Claude’s death last week of a brain aneurysm, she and Christo were working on Over the River, a fabric roof designed to surmount a six-mile stretch of Colorado’s Arkansas River—a project that Christo said would continue.
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