The death of the artist Christo last week in New York at 84 has been the occasion for an outpouring of misty-eyed adulation. I thought I would temper that wave of sentimentality by reprising a column I wrote about him back in 2005 on the occasion of ‘The Gates’, his huge project in Central Park in Manhattan:
Andy Warhol once remarked that ‘art is what you can get away with’. And how. Just ask Christo, the Bulgarian-born entrepreneur who wraps things in cloth, calls it Art and sits back while the money pours into his bank account.
It is nice work if you can get it. In 2004, Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude (they work together, like Lady Bracknell and the Duchess of Bolton) took in about $15.1 million. And for what? For the ‘preparatory drawings’ that Christo makes of his various projects.
‘The Gates’ consists of 7,500 steel squares, each supporting a 16-ft rectangular frame from which descends a large swath of saffron-colored cloth. They were installed along the 20-odd miles of walkways in the park. This visual litter inconvenienced visitors to the park from February 12-27, 2005, when the whole shebang was rolled up and put into storage somewhere. In the meantime, Christo and Jeanne-Claude spent about $20 million realizing this…dream. In the meantime, Christo worked furiously, churning out the drawings, the largest of which fetched $600,000.
It had been a long time coming. Christo first proposed defacing Central Park back in 1979. An enlightened city council told him to buzz off. Why should the city let an individual capitalize on public property, possibly compromising the local bird life and foliage, in order to enhance his own notoriety and balance sheet? But Christo was a patient chap. ‘The park is not going anywhere,’ he said in 1981. ‘I intend to do this project.’ You see what a multi-faceted thing is genius.
Some people are artistic geniuses. Some are geniuses in science or maths. In The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil spoke of ‘a racehorse of genius’. Christo and his wife were geniuses at self-promotion. They gulled municipalities around the world into letting them stage their pranks, and the result is celebrity and riches.
Mark the celebrity. I’d wager everyone reading this column knows of Christo. That’s because he and his wife spent years assiduously burnishing his image. Like some pop stars, Christo Javacheff long ago saw the advantage of being known by a single name.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude made quite a team. They were apparently born on the same day in June 1935. Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009 at 74, liked to be identified as an equal co-partner in the artistic entity that is officially known as ‘Xto and J-C’. In fact, she was the organizational brains of the team. Her greatest triumph was in getting her own activities baptized as an integral part of the artistic process. She haggled with French bureaucrats: that’s Art. She negotiates with German politicians, that’s Art, too. She pays a bill, ditto. It’s one thing to tell a mere manager or businessman that his latest scheme is pure banana oil, completely ridiculous, in fact, and a public nuisance, to boot. Who wants to be caught talking to an Artist that way? And, let’s face it, anyone who could convince the Germans to let him wrap the Reichstag, or the French to let him wrap the Pont Neuf (Christo’s two most famous entertainments), has extraordinary powers of persuasion.
One of Christo’s projects involved placing thousands of 20-ft-tall umbrellas in a picturesque spot in California. When a strong wind uprooted one and it smashed into a tourist and killed her, the artist’s grief at the news was somehow woven into the art work, absolving him, in the sophisticated precincts of elite opinion, of any taint or responsibility.
None of the original objections to ‘The Gates’ has been answered. Nevertheless, a couple of years ago the Central Park Conservancy gave Christo the green light for a modified version of his original project (7,500 gates instead of 15,000).
In a PR brochure for the project, Christo and his wife spoke of ‘a visual golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees, highlighting the shapes of the footpaths’. Hmmm. ‘A visual golden river’? 7,500 poles of drying laundry is more like it.
Someone in New York’s Economic Development Corporation estimated that ‘The Gates’ would generate $80 million from tourists flocking to the city to see 7,500 saffron-sheets fluttering in the snow and ice. Maybe it did. But maybe, too, H.L. Mencken was on to something when he said that no one ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of the American public.
It would be nice to think that even gullibility has limits. I suspect that by February 15, the emperor’s-new-clothes aspect of the thing will be evident to everybody— except ‘Xto and JeanneClaude’, of course. But by then they will already have made out like bandits.