My memories of Jeanne-Claude and my participation in “The Gates, (Project for Central Park, New York City) 1979-2005.”
It was a shock to learn of the sudden death of JEANNE-CLAUDE. Didn’t we all believe that her larger than life persona and brazen red hair would go on forever with her beloved husband and art collaborator Christo?
Their marriage and partnership in the various projects spanning over 50 years was a unique union, a never ending love affair of mutual admiration and support, a true 24/7 connection. They were hardly ever apart for all these years except when they launched “The Umbrellas” Project for Japan in 1991 when Jeanne-Claude opened in Ibaraki, Japan and Christo in Tejon Ranch in southern California simultaneously, later reuniting in Japan and of course when Christo went to the dentist.
Christo, the shy retiring artist in the background always protected and encouraged by Jeanne-Claude, the general’s daughter. She was totally in charge, always in command mode calling the shots, moving the projects forward, finding a way to make it happen, no matter what difficulties financial or political had to be overcome, no matter the length of time involved. She was the match that ignited Christo’s fire and the water that quenched his thirst. She devoted her entire life from the age of 23 when they met in Paris to realize his visions of transforming coastlines, erecting umbrellas in the rice paddy fields,wrapping buildings, trees, walls or bridges, and installing gates in Central Park. When asked why they wanted to do “The Gates” or any of the other projects Jeanne-Claude always replied, “We wish to create works of art of joy and beauty.”
For many years, the artists were more recognized and appreciated in Europe and Asia than in the US as has been the case with many contemporary artists in the last 50 years. This all changed with their final collaboration, “The Gates, (Project for Central Park, 1979-2005)” when their 26 year dream to erect 15,000 gates in the Central Park became a reality. (7,503 actually). The title of the work, “The Gates” refers to the gates that were built by Olmstead and Vaux in 1858 to close the park at night and to prevent “undesirables” from entering during the day. The park was designed for the wealthy gentry who rode their carriages and gathered in the Mall in their finery in season. Christo wanted to create a project that invited ALL to enter freely and partake in the joy and beauty of its magnificent nature and architecture.
My first encounter with Jeanne-Claude was in the 1970s when I was working in the contemporary department at Parke-Bernet in New York. The telephone rang one day and it was Jeanne-Claude inquiring about the drawings and collages by Christo that were being offered in the upcoming auction. She boldly asked what the reserves were on the various lots. Did she not realize that this was an indiscreet question? After repeatedly asking for the reserves, and my explaining that I could not and would not tell her, as it was a confidential agreement between the consignor and the auction house and was never disclosed, she expressed interest in bidding on the lots. Ah ha, now I would be able to assist her. She gave me a number and then would say is that enough? I kept encouraging her to raise her bid and when it reached over the reserve, I would say yes, that’s enough! Thus began my relationship with Jeanne-Claude not “Jean-Claude.”
Soon Christo and Jeanne-Claude were inviting me to dinner at their studio/home in Soho. It was always with the idea to network and further their projects, as they worked on at least two at a time and of course to reconnect with their vast number of friends and associates worldwide. Arriving alone, with friends or with clients at their graffited red door with no number was always exciting. One rang the buzzer, and after announcing oneself entered the building and promptly was ordered to close the door behind very tightly. The steep walk up to the “parlor” floor was invigorating. Later, they installed a chair for their elderly guests who could no longer go up on their own. Jeanne-Claude would come down the stairs from a higher floor and would greet the guests with her flaming red hair, usually dressed in a Issey Miyake outfit smoking a cigarette. This scenario would be repeated for decades. In no time, Christo would appear, smiling, wearing his blue jeans and work shirt. In fact, I never saw him dressed in anything else…The introductions were made and Christo took the drink orders… wine, water, scotch etc… He was always congenial and energetic. Jeanne-Claude would sit on the white sofa against the wall offering the guests nuts and candy and begin her story. She would tell how she met Christo, about their son Cyril, the poet and that they lived in New York in this building since 1964. The guests shared stories and information and soon it was time to go to dinner at the French Culinary Institute on Broadway a few blocks from their home. Jeanne-Claude would do the seating and take the orders and tell the waiter how many people wanted fish or meat etc… Often, we had a tour of the kitchen. She also told a few ‘risques’ jokes and often Christo seemed to blush. This was a typical amusing evening shared with thousands over the decades.
I kept in touch with “the Christos” over the years and was always inspired by their enormous energy and work ethic. Jeanne-Claude insisted you telephone after 10:30 am as before that they were talking to Europe. They worked continuously through the day, never having lunch and enjoyed inviting guests for drinks and then out for dinner or openings etc…, every night and were regulars on the art scene together.
It was exciting to join them and visit “Surrounded Islands” project for Miami, 1983, “Pont Neuf, Project for Paris, 1975-85,” “The Umbrellas” in Japan, 1991 and “Wrapped Reichstag” in Berlin 1995. It was in connection with this project that Jeanne-Claude became “Christo and Jeanne-Claude”. The German Museum that failed to accept this new collaboration was not given the exhibition of the preparatory works etc and the one that did in Berlin did receive the show and hung the banner proudly in Berlin “CHRISTO UND JEANNE-CLAUDE”. It was a great achievement for Jeanne-Claude, indeed well earned and deserved! In fact, Surrounded Islands was conceived by Jeanne-Claude and the choice of pink fabric was hers. The views from the airplane and helicopter rides were glorious!