Christo (1935–2020)

Christo. Photo: Wolfgang Volz.

I FIRST BECAME AWARE of Christo and Jeanne-Claude from a black-and-white newspaper photograph of their work in Documenta 4, in 1968, in Kassel. Titled 5,600 Cubicmeter Package, the tall thin sculpture caught my imagination.

Later that year, I was in New York and visited Leo Castelli’s first gallery uptown. I asked if he had any works by Christo. He replied that Christo was not represented by any galleries but offered the artist’s phone number in case I wanted to contact him (the contemporary art world was a very small fraternity in the ’60s). I called, and a very unreceptive Jeanne-Claude answered. I explained that I was a young collector from Sydney, that I was intrigued by their work and should like to meet them. After a prolonged silence, Jeanne-Claude said that they would have half an hour for me the next day—around midday, she said. I should come to Howard Street in SoHo, where they lived, and where Christo’s studio still is to this day.

I didn’t anticipate that that day would change my life. The scheduled thirty-minutes turned into a long afternoon, during which they asked me to find them a coastline to wrap. You don’t often get such requests, but their enthusiasm and charisma convinced me that it was the most important thing I could do upon my return to Sydney. 

It wasn’t an easy task to find a stretch of coastline and get permission to wrap it. The reaction was mostly disbelief and ridicule. Fortunately, Dr. J. R. Clancy, the director of the Prince Henry Hospital situated along the coast six miles from the center of Sydney, agreed. He said the doctors, nurses, and patients might be amused! That was the beginning of Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, 1969. 

Over the past few decades, whenever Christo and Jeanne-Claude undertook a project, they always had a team of engineers and environmental study experts—a whole machine behind the artistic endeavor. At Little Bay, it was all experimentation and enthusiasm, a lot of trial and a few errors. But Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s energy and vision captured the spirit of all those involved, and the project finally succeeded in the Australian spring of ’69. (I had very little time to enjoy its beauty, as I had to worry whether there were a sufficient number of rock climbers and enough rope, fabric, and, perhaps most important, sandwiches and water for the volunteers.)

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, 1968-69. Photo: Shunk-Kender.

I was fortunate to see a number of later projects, including Running Fence, 1972–76, in Sonoma County (my favorite); Surrounded Islands, 1980–83, in Miami; The Pont Neuf Wrapped, 1975–85, in Paris; The Umbrellas, 1984–91, in Japan and California; and the last project they saw to completion together, the monumental Gates, 1979–2005, in New York. My family and I enjoyed walking over The Floating Piers, 2014–16, on Lake Iseo in Italy. With my wife, Naomi, I visited The London Mastaba, 2016–18, at the Serpentine Galleries, London. 

The effect these projects had on all who experienced them continued to surprise me. There was an air of joy and community among the crowds. Christo and Jeanne-Claude left an indelible mark not only on viewers’ memories but on the places and buildings that served as the inspiration for their work. I was privileged that, over the years, Christo and Jeanne-Claude became more than good friends—they became family. I was in New York when Jeanne-Claude died in 2009. I’m saddened that I couldn’t be there with Christo when he passed away. 

Fifty-one years on, Christo has changed both my life and those of millions of people around the world. Christo is gone, but his impact on contemporary art will live on. 

Next year, L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, in Paris, will be a crowning monument to all his achievements.

John Kaldor is the founder of Kaldor Public Art Projects.