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The Passion of the Christos

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From top, Package on Wheelbarrow, 1963, an early Christo sculpture; Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971–95; The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Paris, 1975–85; Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980–83. Photo Credits: Wolfgang Volz/Copyright Christo 1963, Collection: The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Wolfgang Volz/Laif/Redux  

Later that year, the Christos tried to regroup and put together a second proposal. But the project had lost momentum. In May, Rolling Stone published an article called “Whither Christo,” ridiculing his efforts to persuade New Yorkers. Even more damaging to the artists was the photo that accompanied the piece. Christo had gone to a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz, unaccompanied by Jeanne-Claude, and Leibovitz took a portrait of him standing in Central Park, wrapped in red-and-white cloth.

“I didn’t like that photograph,” Christo later told Chernow.

“That’s all you have to say about it?” Jeanne-Claude said sharply.

“I hated it,” Christo said.

“Did I like it?” Jeanne-Claude asked.

“No. You didn’t like it at all,” said Christo.

“It was my fault,” she said. “If I had gone, I would never have let her wrap him. Never! We almost divorced over that photo. I was so furious he didn’t have the balls to say no.”

The Christos now have a personal photographer, Wolfgang Volz. He’s the only person allowed to take their portraits or officially photograph their work.

The Christos’ five-story home and studio, with plain white shades drawn over the windows, looks indistinct on a graffiti-stained block in Soho, nestled between upscale art galleries and an open-air bazaar where vendors hawk counterfeit handbags. Then again, if the Christos are, as one art-world observer suggested to me, “performing the role of modern artists for people who don’t like modern art,” then this gritty setting makes for the perfect soundstage.

The Christos make no secret that their traveling show—from the political jockeying to the public debates to events like the signing of an original drawing, such as the one they’ve given to New York—is all part of what they consider their grand work of art. Whether this process is a critique of art and bureaucracy or simply great public theater, it’s an undeniably canny way to conduct business. “Keep in mind that the money we spend is our money,” says Jeanne-Claude. “If we made a choice of buying a big estate in Aspen, Colorado, or to cover myself in diamonds, we can also do it. Because it’s our money. But it would be very uncomfortable to be covered in diamonds.”

The image of a 69-year-old Christo squirreled away in his studio, working seventeen hours a day to produce dozens of sketches, recalls the quasi-apocryphal tales of the elderly Picasso scribbling his signature on a serviette to settle up his bar tab. Yet this ingenious, self-sustaining apparatus—by which the sketches serve as a kind of de facto bond issue to pay for the final work—not only allows the Christos to maintain their autonomy but also insulates them from the most obvious criticism, raised in every town into which they set down: How much is this going to cost us? To which the Christos can serenely answer, Nothing at all.

“Our biggest collector, [Swedish businessman] Torsten Lilja, once said to us, ‘I love your work because you are entrepreneurs,’ ” says Jeanne-Claude. “Christo and I jumped. We said, ‘Don’t say a thing like that! That’s exactly what the artists who hate us say—they call us entrepreneurs.’ And he said, ‘But it’s wonderful to be an entrepreneur.’ ” This attitude may partly explain the enthusiasm of their most powerful booster, Michael Bloomberg, an ardent advocate of public art in general and of the Christos in particular. (He recently purchased two of their works.) Bloomberg lobbied for The Gates while a trustee on the Central Park Conservancy board in the nineties, and his victory in 2001 gave the Christos new hope. At his inauguration (he owned no Christos at the time), he hinted the project would find new life. A few months later, they were contacted by Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris.

The Christos revised their proposal to address the city’s concerns. The number of gates was reduced to 7,500, and the event was scheduled for February, traditionally a quiet month in the park. There was, however, one lingering deal-breaker: the matter of the holes. “Digging 15,000 holes, damaging tree roots, digging through rock, that would have been impossible,” says Commissioner Benepe. “It’s like a parody of that Beatles lyric: How many holes does it take to fill the Albert Hall?”


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