The Passion of the Christos

Christo working on a drawing of The Gates in his Soho studio. Photo Credit: Wolfgang Volz

On the fifth floor of a converted factory just north of Canal Street, the artist Christo is sketching furiously in a sweatshop of his own design—well, not his design alone.

“Nobody speaks to Christo!” says his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, in her dramatic Parisian accent. “Christo is working seventeen hours a day on the drawings we must sell to pay for The Gates. Without these sketches, there will be no Gates!”

So every morning Christo climbs the stairs from the couple’s fourth-floor apartment to his fifth-floor studio. He works, standing, for several hours on wall-size drawings that illustrate the plans for The Gates, the enormous installation he and his wife have planned for Central Park, and which is scheduled to open in mid-February. Sometimes he moves to a table to work on one of six or seven smaller collages, all at various stages of completion. Or he spreads out a drawing on the floor and works, wearing gardener’s knee pads. “Sometimes he comes down to eat raw garlic, which he eats three times a day,” says Jeanne-Claude. “A total of one head of garlic a day, raw, like candies. With some yogurt. And sometimes a glass of soy milk. That takes him about three minutes. Then back to the studio.”

He leaves Jeanne-Claude downstairs to conduct interviews and schedule visits by collectors, several of whom now visit their studio each day. The works are priced by size: The small collages, measuring eleven inches by eight and a half inches, sell for $30,000; the wall-size drawings, at four and three quarters feet by eight feet, go for $600,000. The Gates, which is being financed entirely by the Christos, with not a penny of grants, city money, or donations, is budgeted at $20 million—which translates to a lot of collages, drawings, sketches, and models. “Nobody comes up here unless they are buying!” Jeanne-Claude says. “Are you buying?”

“Nobodyspeaks toChristo,”says Jeanne-Claude.“Christo isworking seventeenhours a day on thesketches wemust sell to pay forThe Gates.”

So what, exactly, is The Gates? Well, literally, it’s exactly that: 7,500 gates that will frame the pathways of Central Park for sixteen days next month. Each of the gates is sixteen feet high, secured to a heavy metal base and trailing a swath of bright saffron-colored fabric, all of which, together in the wind, will create a shimmering river of color. The official title of the work is The Gates: Central Park, New York, 1979–2005, and that 26-year span in the date is no typo. It represents the exact length of time it’s taken them to persuade New York City officials to let this enormously ambitious, logistically staggering, and—by the artists’ own admission—gleefully pointless project come to life. They’ve attended meetings, consultations, and public hearings during two decades: The couple made 41 formal presentations to civic officials and community leaders in 1980 alone. They’ve endured feasibility reports, petitions, angry letters of protest, and a 251-page official refusal, issued 23 years ago.

The Gates has taken so long to come to fruition, in fact, that when it was first proposed, its artist had only one name: Christo. Now the artist is called Christo and Jeanne-Claude. In 1994, the couple formally announced what they said had been true all along: that they were equal partners in creating each of their massive environmental works. Their sense of themselves as collaborators, though, is something closer to symbiosis. They were both born on June 13, 1935, he in Bulgaria, she in Casablanca, to a French military family. Jeanne-Claude is fond of combining their ages; she once told a reporter they’d just turned 120. They travel everywhere together, except on planes—they want to ensure, in the event of a crash, that the other one remains to finish any ongoing work. To Jeanne-Claude, their complementary sensibilities are self-evident. “For example, Surrounded Islands is not an idea of Christo, it is an idea of Jeanne-Claude,” she says. “That is why, if you look at it carefully, you might find it a little bit more feminine than other projects. The Wrapped Reichstag was Christo’s idea, and that is very much less feminine.”

On view in Central Park, February 12-27. The Gates at a Glance
How the vast project came together. Collage, 2005
A drawing created by Christo especially for this magazine A Walk in the Park
A diagram of where to find The Gates.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Central Park, December 2004. Photo Credit: Wolfgang Volz

To the public, the Christos are popularly known, much to their frustration, as “the wrapping artists” or, even more colloquially, as “the guy who wraps things.” This is mostly a result of their most widely publicized work to date, Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971–1995, an installation that involved wrapping the entire German Parliament building in silvery fabric, so that it looked like an enormous wedding cake. But many of their other works, they point out, have nothing to do with wrapping. The Umbrellas, for instance, consisted of 3,100 umbrellas, planted across 30 miles of countryside in California and Japan. Or Running Fence, a 1976 work for which they erected a 241⁄2-mile, eighteen-foot-high fence of rippling white fabric that snaked across Sonoma and Marin counties in California, then disappeared into the ocean.

Their identity as wrappers is just one of the many misconceptions they address on their Website,, in a section titled “Common Errors.” Other common errors: The Christos are mysterious about their work. (“NO. Christo and Jeanne-Claude constantly lecture and answer questions.”) Calling him Mr. Christo. (“NO. Christo is his first name and the only one he uses.”) One can see their artwork best from the air. (“No! None of the work is designed for the birds.”)

That any of their works have been completed at all seems both a small miracle and not entirely surprising, at least once you’ve met the artists. The Christos are nothing if not patient. From the day in 1980 they announced to New York officials that they wanted to march a small army into the city’s most treasured public space—and, oh, by the way, plant 15,000 fabric-draped steel gates—they’ve run up against a wall of skeptics. Some of those skeptics will be in attendance on February 12, the day The Gates is scheduled to open.

I’ve likened it to an artistic Halley’s Comet,” Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe tells me from his cell phone, as he travels by car through Central Park, passing the crews assembling The Gates. “Blink and you’ll miss it. And you won’t see it again in your lifetime.” People like Benepe who were involved in the negotiations for The Gates list a variety of factors that improbably aligned to make this comet possible, from the post-9/11 tourist lull to a renewed public interest in art and design, sparked by the debates over the World Trade Center memorial. But three factors are repeatedly invoked: 1) the restoration of Central Park; 2) the election of Michael Bloomberg as mayor; and 3) the small matter of the 30,000 holes the Christos once hoped to dig in Central Park.

The Christos have called New York home since 1964, having moved here from Paris, drawn by the art scene. In Paris, Christo had built his reputation wrapping small-scale objects, such as telephones, chairs, and trees. But he was enthralled by New York’s skyline, and started sketching plans to wrap the Whitney, MoMA, and the Allied Chemical Tower in Times Square.

Photo: Wolfgang Volz

The city’s art scene regarded the couple with mixed emotions. Jeanne-Claude became infamous for planning elaborate dinner parties and brazenly inviting every art-world figure of prominence, from Leo Castelli and Jasper Johns to Frank Stella and Marcel Duchamp. Ivan Karp, an art manager for Leo Castelli at the time, called the dinners “an ongoing scandal” and said of Jeanne-Claude, “I didn’t want to be in the same room with her.” As art critic David Bourdon recalled, “People were contemptuous of them. They were perceived as being very pushy. And then they served these god-awful meals. A lot of the unpopularity they met with in the early days was directed against Christo’s art; the rest was directed against Jeanne-Claude and her flank steak.”

Jeanne-Claude seems to relish her reputation as an art-world Yoko Ono. “This is my best quality,” she told Burt Chernow, their biographer. “It has protected Christo all these years. I think every artist needs a monster.” Later, I asked her to elaborate on the sentiment. She laughed. “In the art world, they like to say, ‘Christo is so nice and gentle, and he always says yes to everybody.’ Then he sends me to say no.”

Their plan for a New York project lay dormant until 1979, when they turned their eyes to Central Park. The Christos envisioned a project that would reflect the city’s peripatetic culture while complementing Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterful landscaping. They submitted a proposal to the city in 1980; it involved 15,000 steel-pole gates planted directly in the park’s soil. They hoped to open The Gates in October 1983. Their budget was just over $5 million.

“Back then,” says Doug Blonsky, current president of the Central Park Conservancy, “the question for the park was, How do we restore the crown jewel of New York City? Not, How do we come in and dig up 30,000 holes?” To that end, Gordon J. Davis, then the city’s parks commissioner, had founded the conservancy, a committee designed in part to shield the park from just the kind of intrusive event the Christos were proposing. So their project found few allies. A New York Times editorial condemned it. And at a press conference captured on film by the documentarian Albert Maysles, one attendee sounded the most commonly heard complaint: “Here’s an event of 27 miles of shower curtains around the park,” he said with gruff incredulity. “Is that necessary, Mr. Christo, to promote yourself?”

Davis and others tried to sway the Christos toward less delicate locations: the Coney Island boardwalk or the Park Avenue mall. At a lecture at the Pratt Institute, a city official asked the artists why they wouldn’t consider Prospect Park as an alternative. Jeanne-Claude stood up brusquely from her chair. “I want to ask the gentleman a silly question,” she said. “Did you marry the lady you wanted or did you marry an alternative woman?”

By January 1981, though, they sensed the marriage would be called off altogether. Sure enough, in February, Commissioner Davis released a 251-page report outlining his reasons for turning them down. As part of his decision, Davis said, “If we allowed Christo to do this, we would have to do the same for everyone. That would make a shambles of the park.”

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?”

In spring 2002, the Christos took a walk through Central Park with their chief design engineer, Vince Davenport. Davenport and his wife, Jonita, who serves as the Christos’ project coordinator, have worked with the artists since 1989. Considering the problem, Davenport said to Christo and Jeanne-Claude, “You just can’t do this job. Even with Bloomberg, you’ll get turned down. They’re never going to let you drill 15,000 holes in Central Park.” The issue of securing the steel gates had become even more crucial, given a tragedy that occurred at the Umbrellas installation in California. One of the umbrellas was unmoored by a freakish, swirling wind, and took flight, resulting in the death of a spectator. Davenport briefly considered aluminum poles for the gates but dismissed them as too expensive. He proposed other ideas, which Christo couldn’t stomach. “No, no, they are too ugly!” he said. They left the park with no solution.

Then back at his home in Leavenworth, Washington, Davenport noticed a neighbor assembling a new horse corral. He asked his neighbor what material he was using for the fence. Vinyl, he was told.

The advantage of the vinyl gates, Davenport surmised, was that they could be moored to heavy steel bases that required no digging, and that could be placed along the pavement, rather than in the ground. Just to be sure, though, he poured asphalt on his own property to simulate Central Park’s pathways, then built eighteen full-size gates to test their durability. Satisfied, he contacted Patricia Harris, and they arranged for Doug Blonsky to fly out to Washington to see the structures. Blonsky was converted. They’d solved the problem of the holes by doing away with them altogether.

In the first, crisp weeks of this month, a visitor to Central Park could spot a small battalion of forklifts hoisting stacks of steel bases from pallets piled twelve wide and eight high. In a nearby construction trailer, a message is scrawled on a white board: “We completed in one month 13,144 bases in & stacked. Good job. Happy New Year!”

Thirty blocks south, four trailers sit clustered in a parking lot behind the Boathouse Restaurant. The scene is part construction site, part gypsy encampment, and part back lot at the circus. One trailer houses Albert Maysles, the trim, white-haired documentarian who’s made films about several of the Christos’ past projects. In another trailer, there’s an office for Wolfgang Volz, the Christos’ official photographer. Another trailer houses the project’s main office, its walls papered in maps, schematic drawings, and posters of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s previous works.

In the office, Jonita Davenport, a petite, well-coiffed woman in round glasses and a fleece vest, shuttles between a massive desk, files of media requests, a huge wall map of Central Park, and a ringing phone that’s as insistent as a bawling baby. She traces a finger along the map’s highlighted pathways, then halts. “This is as far as we’ve come,” she says. “You can follow the bases by the orange safety cones on them—except where the cones have been stolen.” (Indeed, one such pilfered cone later turned up on eBay, priced at $9.99.)

A few days after our initial conversation, Jeanne-Claude tells me, “Christo is no longer working seventeen hours a day. Now he is working 22 hours a day! Only two days this week he did not work 22 hours. On those, he worked through the night!”

She’s fond of comparing their works to children, and has said they’d no more choose a favorite work than they’d single out a favorite child. (They have only one child, Cyril Christo, a poet who lives in Santa Fe.) I ask her, though, if The Gates isn’t a little more special for them, given the fact that it’s happening in their hometown of New York. “You must understand, it is the very first time in our lives that we are doing a project without jet lag!” she says. Then, after a pause, she says, “It is a great joy, yes.”

On one abnormally warm recent morning, the Christos took a chauffeured car uptown to watch their work being born. They arrived to a park draped in fog. They emerged from the car: Christo tall and thin, gently smiling, his seventies-era Woody Allen glasses discarded for more elegant frames; Jeanne-Claude’s dyed-saffron hair vibrant against the gray mist. Then they strolled, hand in hand, up a path lined with metal bases, to where a TV reporter waited for an interview. As the cameraman peered into his viewfinder, looking to frame his shot, Christo and Jeanne-Claude nuzzled closer to each other, and Christo gave an instruction to the cameraman: “Together, please, together. Always together.”

A Walk in the Park
Making sense of The Gates.

The Gates at a Glance
A vast project made simple.

The Passion of the Christos