How Christo and Jeanne-Claude Managed to Pull Off 6 of Their Most Astonishing Art Projects, From ‘The Gates’ to ‘Valley Curtain’
To mark the death of Christo at age 84, we look back on some of the artist duo's most famous works.
Husband-and-wife artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude created some of art history’s most memorable and monumental installations, yet they often took pains to make the distinction between scale and complexity.
“In fact, they are very humble projects, very simple projects, but they need to be put together in an incredibly clever way,” Christo once told Artnet News.
To mark Christo’s death—on May 31 at age 84—we’ve revisited six of the couple’s most beloved works of art, and the hurdles they had to surmount to bring them to life.
The Gates, New York (1979–2005)
Where: Central Park
When: February 12–28, 2005
What: A team of 600 workers installed 7,503 gates across 23 miles of pathways in Central Park. From each gate, spaced out at 12-foot intervals, hung a sheet of saffron-colored fabric, seven feet above the ground and free to blow in the wind, creating a golden ribbon of light streaking across the park in the dead of winter.
How long it took to realize: 26 years
Biggest challenge: The Gates was ultimately a triumph, drawing four million visitors to Central Park. But back in the late 1970s, when the duo first conceived of the work, New York City was blighted by crime and the park was in a state of neglect. The Parks Department initially turned down the artists’ permit applications, due in part due to opposition from neighborhood organizations and conservation groups such as the Audubon Society, which feared the potential environmental impact of The Gates.
Most ingenious tactic: Undeterred by setbacks, Christo and Jeanne-Claude opted to wait until they found a powerful ally—Mayor Michael Bloomberg—who supported the project. Christo didn’t even bother to read the Parks Department’s 107-page rejection report in 1981, assuring the New York Times that “I am in good health, the park is still there, and I will do that project.”
Running Fence, Marin and Sonoma Counties, California (1972–76)
Where: Along the coast of the Pacific Ocean and Freeway 101
When: September 10–24, 1976
What: The artists hung an 18-foot-tall rippling curtain of white nylon fabric—more than 2 million square feet in total—along a steel cable strung between 2,050 steel poles, stretching 24.5 miles along the California coast in the North Bay.
How long it took to realize: Three and a half years
Biggest challenge: Christo and Jeanne-Claude navigated 18 public hearings and three superior court sessions in California to get approval for the piece. They also sat down individually with 59 ranchers who owned the land along the project’s route to convince them to take part. They got everyone from art students to Hell’s Angels motorcyclists to help with the five-month installation.
Most ingenious tactic: When the California Coastal Zone Conservation Commission denied the last permit for the project, for the section that would run into the ocean at Bodega Bay, Christo and Jeanne-Claude didn’t flinch—they just installed it anyway.
Valley Curtain, Rifle, Colorado (1970–72)
Where: Between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs in the Grand Hogback Mountain Range
When: August 10–11, 1972
What: Christo and Jeanne-Claude erected a 250,000-square-foot orange curtain of nylon polyamide fabric across the 1,250-foot-wide Rifle Gap, 300 feet tall at its biggest point.
How long it took: Over two years
Biggest challenge: Officials from the Colorado Division of Highways were on board with Valley Curtain from the start, but it still took two tries to bring this work to life. An attempt to install the piece on October 9, 1971, failed when workers dropped the massive curtain as a gust of wind tore through the valley. The rocks shredded the fabric and delayed the project until the following summer. As a team of 35 construction workers and 64 art students and other helpers worked to unfurl the second curtain, a release chain jammed, endangering the piece yet again as ropes whipped in the wind until the crew secured the billowing fabric and anchored the work. Only 28 hours later, winds reached 60 miles an hour, bringing the short-lived installation to an end.
Most ingenious tactic: To keep the curtain in place, Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed 864-ton concrete foundations on either side of the gap, and four 61-ton cables running across the valley. The curtain was transported inside a rubber cocoon, and further protected by a second cocoon inserted inside the fabric.
Surrounded Islands, Miami (1981–83)
Where: Biscayne Bay, Miami
When: May 7–18, 1983
What: Christo and Jeanne-Claude used 6.5 million square feet of floating pink woven polypropylene fabric to cover the surface of the water around 11 islands on Biscayne Bay. The effect was akin to giant pink lily pads.
How long it took: Two and a half years
Biggest challenge: Before Christo and Jeanne-Claude took an interest, the islands were mainly being used as garbage dumps. The pair had to remove some 40 tons of rubbish ahead of installation, including refrigerator doors and mattresses. Realizing the complicated project required a team that included a marine engineer, a marine biologist, an ornithologist, and a mammals expert, as well as a building contractor and lawyers. It also necessitated a permit with the US Army Corps of Engineers and led to a lawsuit from wildlife paramedic Jack Kassewitz, Jr.
Most ingenious tactic: Each of the tiny islands required its own design, the fabric cut to match the contours of the land. Workers sewed a flotation strip into each seam, and constructed the fabric accordion style to facilitate the unfurling during installation. A team of 120 monitors were on site in inflatable boats day and night, making sure the piece remained seaworthy and that no animals got caught in the fabric.
Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin (1971–95)
Where: The Reichstag, the German parliament building in Berlin
When: June 24–July 6, 1995
What: More than a million square feet of silvery polypropylene fabric were draped over a 220-ton steel structure built around the Reichstag, which was burned by an arsonist in 1933 and fell into disuse after World War II.
How long it took to realize: 24 years
Biggest challenge: Michael Cullen, a Berlin historian, first suggested the Reichstag as a possible project site for Christo and Jeanne-Claude back in 1971, but the idea went nowhere until German reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ahead of renovations in preparation for parliament’s return to the building, the artists seized the opportunity to realize the project. But it still wasn’t smooth sailing. Costs for the work ballooned from $6 million to more than $10 million, according to the New York Times.
Most ingenious tactic: To fit the then-101-year-old building’s unique shape, the artists had to craft 70 tailor-made panels to cover the façades, the towers and the roof. They also hired 90 specially trained rock climbers as part of the team who installed the work.
The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy (2014–16)
Where: Monte Isola and San Paolo, two islands in Lake Iseo, and the mainland town of Sulzano
When: June 18–July 3, 2016
What: For his first major project since the death of Jeanne-Claude in 2009, Christo constructed two miles of floating piers covered in bright yellow fabric.
How long it took to realize: Two years
Biggest challenge: Christo and Jeanne-Claude originally tried staging the work, conceived in 1970, in Argentina and Japan, but it was Italy that gave the green light. The biggest problem came after the project opened to the public, when tourists flocked to the small town by the hundreds of thousands. Government officials were forced to shut the work down overnight and limit access to Sulzano, stranding 3,000 would-be visitors at the nearest train station and triggering complaints from an Italian consumer group.
Most ingenious tactic: How do you mimic the sensation of walking on water? Christo installed no fewer than 200,000 buoyant polyethylene cubes floating just above sea level, transferring the fluidity of the water into the fabric and the body. “This project is unbelievably sexy,” he told Artnet News at the time.
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