Christo, artist

Born: June 13, 1935;

Died: May 31, 2020.

CHRISTO, who has died aged 84, was an artist best known for his gigantic, site-specific installations at public landmarks; the most famous and spectacular of these works, which were often short-lived but years in the planning, probably came in 1995, when he realised a long-standing project to wrap the Reichstag in Berlin.

The work involved swaddling the building, which had not at that point returned to use as a reunited Germany’s parliament, in 100,000 square metres of silver cloth, held in place by more than 15 kilometres of blue rope. It was an ambition that Christo and Jeanne-Claude, his wife and artistic partner, had held since the early 1970s, when Germany was still divided and the building marked the border.

In the event, it took 24 years, and six presidents of the Bundestag, before he was able to secure permission for the work, which was in place for only a fortnight.

Christo, who was born in Bulgaria, and whose first major work was Iron Curtain (1962), had grown up with the division of the Cold War, though he later maintained that the object of his work was merely to provoke an aesthetic response and encourage people to look at things differently.

Wrapped Reichstag was, however, widely received as a physical response to reunification, and widely publicised. Like Damien Hirst’s divided shark or Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, cartoonists seized upon it and his name was routinely invoked in association with anything that had been wrapped.

Christo’s name was already established in the art world, and his techniques known to those who had seen or heard of previous wrapped locations, which included a section of the Sydney coastline (1969), islands off Miami (1983) and the Pont Neuf in Paris (1985), but the Reichstag brought a wide international audience.

Charles Schulz, in a Peanuts strip from 1978, had depicted Snoopy reading about Christo’s work in the newspaper, and returning to find his kennel wrapped; in 2003, the artist returned the compliment by presenting the Schulz museum with a solid example.

Christo Vladimirov Javacheff was born on June 13, 1935, in Gabrovo, central Bulgaria, where his father worked for a textile mill (Gabrovo was nicknamed “the Bulgarian Manchester”). As a child, he was evacuated to the surrounding country during the war, and was always interested in landscape and art.

He enrolled in 1953 at the Academy of Fine Arts in the capital, Sofia, and trained in the Soviet Realist style, as well as working as a location scout for the state film industry. He managed to get permission to visit Prague in 1956, and from there stowed away on a train to Vienna, where he arrived penniless, enrolled in the Fine Arts Academy and sought asylum as a stateless person. He remained without a country until 1973 and had spells in Italy and Switzerland before moving to Paris in 1958.

He met Jeanne-Claude that year while painting her mother; they had a son together, though she was engaged (and went through with the ceremony) to someone else. Thereafter they worked together, though only Christo’s name was used until the 1980s.

His first exhibition, in Cologne in 1961, featured wrapped items (the first was a paint tin) and oil barrels. The following year, Iron Curtain was a piece made from 89 stacked barrels that, without permission, completely blocked the Rue Visconti in Paris. It stayed up for eight hours after Jeanne-Claude charmed the police.

In 1964, the pair relocated to New York City (Christo became a US citizen in 1973, and Jeanne-Claude in 1984, though she also retained French citizenship). They began to produce replica shopfronts and a series called Air Packages, wrapped weather balloons. They then wrapped the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, to general scorn.

In 1969, they wrapped 2.4 km of Sydney’s Little Bay, with 100 volunteers, 93,000 square metres of fabric and 58 km of rope. One of the largest artworks ever constructed, it remained in place for ten weeks. As with all their subsequent installations, they funded the piece themselves, refusing grants and subsidies, and relying on the subsequent sale of the sketches, models and collages used to create the piece to pay for it, after its removal. This was no small undertaking, since some of their later projects cost tens of millions to construct.

Valley Curtain (1972) and Running Fence were huge fabric barriers constructed in Colorado and California, respectively. In 1983, the couple surrounded 11 islands in Florida’s Biscayne Bay with 600,000 square metres of floating neon-pink fabric. The Pont Neuf, in sand-coloured fabric and 12 km of steel chain, followed in 1985.

The Umbrellas (1991), featuring 3,000 huge umbrellas, was simultaneously staged in Japan (where they were blue) and California (gold). It cost $26 million and attracted three million visitors but closed early after a fatal accident.

After the Reichstag, their major works included The Gates, thousands of golden fabric arches in New York’s Central Park (2005, and the subject of a film on their installation) and, after Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009, Christo realised their plans for The Floating Piers, walkways on Lake Iseo, Italy (late June, 2016). In 2018, in conjunction with a retrospective at London’s Serpentine Gallery, he created The London Mastaba, built from 7,500 oil barrels, on the water (pictured).

Plans to wrap the Arc de Triomphe in Paris later this year were postponed until next autumn, because of coronavirus. Christo’s estate has said that they still intend for the work to be produced. Christo is survived by his and Jeanne-Claude’s son, Cyril Christo, a photographer and filmmaker.