Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Art

Interview by Daniela Bertol

New York, March 17, 2008

Daniela Bertol: I think, as many other people, of your work as one of the greatest examples of public art. What motivated you initially to create art outside the museum and gallery settings?
Christo: Our first project was in 1961….
Jeanne-Claude: Our motivation never really changes, it has always has been to create a work of art of joy and beauty.
DB Beautiful definition!
C Absolutely useless, absolute unnecessary, with no justification… that is very important….we want the art to happen, no corporate executive or some senator or some mayor decides what would be good for the people. After 40 years we have realized 19 projects but we failed to get permission for 37.
JC Do you live in NY?
DB I have been living in NY for 20 years, 21 years
JC Welcome! We have been living in this building for 45 years; we moved to this building in 1964.
DB What made you leave Europe? 
C I was born in Bulgaria. I escaped from a communist country in 1957, during the Hungarian revolution. I went to Prague, because I am a quarter Czech. I was 21 years old, I tried to go to Paris, like any artist in the 50s. Paris was the city of art. I was a political refugee, with no passport, with no money, no relatives or family. And in 1958 I met Jeanne Claude.
JC We lived 6 years in Paris.
C And also in Italy, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Belgium…many different locations.
JC We were traveling a lot outside Paris for exhibitions, meeting collectors, museum directors. But it did not take Christo 6 years in Paris to realize that Paris was not the center of the art world any longer. Already starting in 1961 we were telling all our friends in Paris “next week we are going to New York” but we never had the money to buy the ticket. Finally in February ‘64 we could buy a round trip ticket; we did not want to buy one-way ticket, but round trip. We could not get the visa without round trip, but it was mostly because “What if we don’t like New York? We could be stacked there?”
DB You met in 1958 ---can you mention how you met? Was it love at first sight?
JC No, it was not love at first sight, it was sex at first sight. I believe Christo really fell in love with me when I was pregnant with our son. That’s when it was real love, before that we had a lot of fun.
DB And your son was born I believe, in 1961…
JC No, he was born in 1960. He was already walking when we got married. That’s why in our biography we never put our date of marriage, out of respect for our son. We were married in November 1962. He was 2 and half. We got married because of you, Italians! We were going to Italy a lot. And in Italy, if you had different last names in passports you had to pay for 2 rooms. And we had no money even for one room. We were sleeping in the car most of the time. I told Christo “that is ridiculous, if we are going to Italy again in the next few weeks, let’s get married first, so if we go to an hotel every 3 or 4 nights to wash up, we can pay only for one room.”
DB So you had a very hard beginning…
JC Don’t miss understand, Christo and I were never poor, we were only temporarily without money, that is very different, because poor is a mind set. We were rich to invite our friends for dinner in our one-room in Paris, I would open a can of ravioli, we had bread and a bottle of wine and we had a wonderful dinner, a rich dinner!
DB Where did you live in Paris?
C We lived in a very old house, on Ile Saint Louis, in the back of Notre Dame.
DB Very fascinating beginning… in 1964 you move to the US, when you finally got money to buy round trip ticket and move to US.
C We went back to fetch our son.
JC Because we had left our son with my mother, so in June we went back to Europe and in September we came back with our child Cyril.
C For three years we were illegal aliens …we arrived with a tourist visa and after three months we disappeared.
DB Canada?
C No, hiding in the city, illegal aliens!
DB And still you wanted to live here…
C First we were living at the Chelsea Hotel, February, March, April, May ’64 and in October ’64 we found this place, where we still are now. The building was empty since 1940. We were renting the two top floors.
JC We have no elevator- the 5th floor is still today Christo’s studio, the 4th floor is still today our home and office. We rented two floors, and one wonderful day we bought the building and now we have 5 floors plus the basement. The rent for each floor in 1964 was $70. 
DB The early work was quite unconventional: wrapping, oil barrels…
JC The barrel from 1958 at the other end of the wall (JC point at the wall of the living room), done in Paris.
DB Did you find Americans to be more receptive to unconventional work?
C In the early ’60 I met the American dealer, Sidney Janis. In 1962, Janis showed two of myPackages in the “New Realists” exhibition; one is now in the National Gallery in Washington DC, and one is in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. We had no money to come to the US for the exhibition. In 1961 we met Leo Castelli in Paris, and he said that when we will come to New York he would show my work. 
JC The title for the show in 1964 was "Four at Castelli." 
C I showed a large Storefront, now in the collection of the Hirshorn museum in Washington. That sculpture was built at the Chelsea Hotel in our room.
JC Everybody was living in the Chelsea Hotel: Claes Oldenburg, Larry River, Arthur Miller…
C Arthur Miller’s daughter was playing with our son.
DB You mentioned the exhibition "Four at Castelli." Who were the other three?
C Robert Watts, Richard Artschwager and Alex Hay. I believe only Artschwager is still alive.
DB Your work back then was mainly small or medium scale…
C The first personal exhibition we did was in 1961 in Cologne, Germany; we showed packages.
JC The second one was the Iron Curtain in Paris in June 1962; that was not small, compared to what other artists were creating then, it was very big, it blocked the whole street…
DB Did you start making enemies?
C We had no permit, we did initially photomontages and collages. It is a long story… In September 1961, the wall was designed to be a poetic response to the Berlin Wall, which was built in August 1961. The Paris prefecture refused the permit. 
JC We did it anyway and the police was not very happy with us. Yes, we started making enemies…
DB Your work is at unprecedented scale: The Mastaba is envisioned larger than the Pyramids,Running Fence covered 40 km, The Umbrellas covered 29 km only in California. How is scale influencing the initial concepts of your work? When did you start conceiving work at such magnitude of scale?
JC You have to add the Japan part…
The Umbrellas is a joint project. This is a two-part work of art to involve the two richest countries in the world, which hold a lot of similarities and differences.
JC 19 km in Japan and 29 Km in California.
DB When did you start to envision works at such large scale?
JC You think it is a grand scale only because it is a work of art, human beings create much larger things: highways, airports, skyscrapers. Our Australian friend told us that there is one rancher who, to protect his ranch against wild dogs, had a fence running 2000 miles. In Australia it is not a work of art, it has a purpose, while our works of art have no other purposes other than being a work of art.
C Your question comes really to how these projects work. These projects have a lot of affinities with architecture. One must read our work is very easy to understand, very natural…For instance the Wrapped Reichstag involved architecture, sculpture, painting and urban planning; it was similar to construct a building, we had to go through the same complex decisions. For Over the River our application to the Federal government in Washington, it is 2029 pages and $1,500,000 of scientific research.
JC The Wrapped Reichstag had the same dimensions as the building, it is not the largest building in the world. The Bonart Wrapped in Paris has the same dimension of the bridge. The Pont Neuf in Paris is not the largest bridge in the world. The Pont Neuf is a small bridge. We do not do such big things [JC laughs]
DB Perhaps compared to the China Wall…
JC That’s for sure, and ours have not purpose, the China Wall does.
DB Have you ever considered doing something related to China Wall?
JC Never.
DB We talked about scale and size ---what about the use of colors? Is there a meaning? Are colors associated to the countries which host your work ---thinking of The Umbrellas, blue in Japan and yellow in California… 
JC Do you call this use of colors consistent?
C The Running Fence is the only white one, and then the Pink of the Surrounded Island… 
C The color is not the work of art, the work of art is many things together. The pink color fabric in Florida is not the work of art. The pink color goes with the tropical vegetation of the islands, with the emerald green, turquoise, light blue of the shallow water; altogether is the work of art.
One gate is not the work of art, two gates is not the work of art, 7,503 gates on 23 miles (37 kms) in Central Park is the work of art.
DB What about orange for the Gates?
JC The color is not consistent. But it is perfectly relevant to each specific project.
C And of course color relates to the seasons of the year. The Gates project was a winter project The Florida was a spring project before the hurricane season in Miami. And “Over the River” is a summer project, because of the rafters’ use of the river. They all relate to the seasons of the year, the moment of life, to many things. 
JC The time and where it is.
DB Does the saffron color of the Gates relate to Autumn?
C The Gates started with a warm color in 1979, like a ochre, yellow gold, orange… because we always like to have changing colors.
JC To replace the autumn foliage, there is no notion of color of Fall in Europe but to replace the vision. The last vision of Central Park before the winter is the extraordinary colors, mostly saffron, golden, red. The specific hue of saffron we chose, it was because it was changing color all the time, in the sunshine it was golden, when it was wet it was tomato red, it kept changing all the time. 
DB Interesting, I had this impression that the saffron color was chosen as a sacred color…
JC No, no: there is nothing sacred in our life but for our love, that’s all.
C All our projects are unique. We will never do the same thing again. We do not know how the projects will look like…
JC And we do not know how to build them….
C This is why we do one to one test, this is how we finalize the aesthetics of each project “Over the River” project started in 1992. In 1998 we did four full size tests, far from the Arkansas River to choose what color of fabric to use for the Arkansas River.
JC We had to make many choices, we had to choose how the fabric will be sewn, we had to make the choice. This is the fabric! (JC shows DB the fabric)
DB Wow!
JC Hold the fabric against it the light
C You can see the sky, the clouds, the mountains behind…
DB Do you use any computer simulation program? 
C & JC No, No...(laughing)
JC We live in reality! You may wonder why we love to work with fabric ---in addition to aluminum and steel. It is an old story. This bronze is 4,000 years old (JC shows DB the photo of a Greek statue)
DB From which civilization? 
JC Greek, probably Tanagra. Artists of the past have always loved folds and drapery. You can see her legs in the sculpted bronze…
DB Transparency, sensuality… So instead of dressing the body you dress trees, lands, wall buildings like sculptors with the human body
JC But, we are sculptors!
DB You mentioned perception, light, transparency, color and how the fabric is seen in a certain way when we are looking at it sitting at the table and changes when it is placed against the light…
JC When you look at our web site you see images of sculptures we have created but they are static, they do not move in the wind, they do not change color. In reality our works of art are alive, the fabric moves in the wind and changes color at different time of the day.
C An important part of all our work is that we pay ourselves all the cost. We do not do commissions. 
JC We do not accept sponsor.
C The important part of the story is that for Over the River [Christo points at two large binders] 2029 pages for the permit process.
JC Do you understand these two words? We inherit what is inherent. 
C For example, we did not invent the politics of the Reichstag., the politic was there.
For Surrounded Island we did not invent ecology in Briscane Bay, Florida, the ecology was there. The photographs of the Wrapped Reichstag, the film about the Wrapped Reichstag they are aboutthe Wrapped Reichstag, But for 14 days in 1995 in Berlin, it was not about the Wrapped Reichstag, it was the Wrapped Reichstag!

JC Another analogy: if you go to see a movie about the Vietnam war when you come out of the theater you are not bleeding, the person sitting on your left is not dying, you don’t have one leg cut off, because that was not the Vietnam war, that was about the Vietnam war
. It was only a movie on the subject of the Vietnam war.
C The real Gates lasted 16 days.
JC It was not on the subject of the Gates, it was the Gates.
JC Did you see the documentary on HBO? It was shown about 17 times….
C The work of art absorbs all the meaning only when people are there and they see the real thing. Our works of art have no precedents, they are totally unique. There is no precedent about how to suspend fabric above the water. It is not in the construction manuals.
JC But of course all the projects we complete create precedents...
DB All the work you do is ‘ephemeral”, lasts I believe 14 days, but for a few exceptions, the Gates 16 days Why 14 days?
JC Not always. The Wrapped Coast in Australia was I believe 10 weeks
DB But I believe 14 days is the duration of most all the works…
JC When the project is completed, we have worked very hard to create it, and we are completed elated, because of course it is even more beautiful than in our wildest dreams. But at that precise moment, Christo and I are no longer creative artists, the creativity is finished. We are taking care of the different teams. We become the two bosses of the garbage pick-up teams. We make sure our workers have water, foods and we take care of their many other necessities… No more creativity, and for us probably one week would be enough, because we are eager to go to the next project. But we cannot be so egoistic, one week does not give enough time for many people to see the projects so we decided two weeks to give people enough time to enjoy it.
C For Over the River project, we decided about two summer weeks,between July 15 and August 15. We try to work with the local authorities and communities.
JC But there are many considerations: we want the drafters but on the road there will be a lot traffic, we do not want to do it after school has started, so the school bus will not arrive late, many considerations…
DB That’s really wonderful ! Local authorities must appreciate that...
C Well some appreciate, others do not appreciate. 
DB Have you ever thought of doing your very large scale interventions as a permanent work?
JC The Mastaba will be much longer, but not forever. There is no forever on Planet Earth, the dinosaurs are gone. If well maintained can stay 4,000-5,000 years. Not so long compared to the life of planet Earth and the presence of humans.
DB What’s going on with that project? 
C We traveled there extensively in the late seventies and early eighties. 
JC 7 trips; 2-3 weeks each. The region became dangerous. The war between Iran and Iraq, next door, I was afraid. We went back last year, in 2007, after 25 years of absence. 
C Our associates Wolfang Wolz who works with us already went back. However the engineering project requires a lot of work
JC “Over the River” we think could be completed in 2012 at the earliest.
C After we get the permit we have to fabricate off-site the elements of the project. This will take two years. 
JC For all our projects, the fabric is the least expensive and least complicated.
DB Is it more what holds the fabric that is complicated?
JC Yes.
C We have to install 8000 anchors 
DB Did you anticipate how many workers will be required?
JC No, we don’t, it is too early. That’s really a question for our chief engineer/director of constructions, Vince Davenport and his wife, Jonita Davenport, project director. They are the ones who worked with us on the Umbrellas and the Gates.
DB Next question, is in fact about the relationship with your engineers….
JC They are part of our working family.
DB Do you have an ongoing dialogue, such as “I want this structure to span 3 km” and they reply “I don’t think is possible”
JC No, it is not like that. Even the length is not decided in advance. The interaction with the local professionals is decisive. If they say, for instance, in Over the River “this is the place where every year we have to rescue rafter” Of course we do not put any fabric there. 
C It is too early to make such decisions; even the title was not definitive at the beginning.
JC “Over the River” is not the right title In 1992 the project was called the river. We had not found the right title. It was only an idea.; it is only an idea. When we started we did not know yet what we are doing. We have never done it before. And we have driven 14,000 miles inspecting 89 rivers in the Rocky Mountains of United States only, not in Canada. Out of the 89 rivers, we found 6 possible rivers. With our engineer, we decided that the Arkansas River is the best. It has high banks so we can hang the cables. It has a road running along the river so people can see the work of art by car, it has a railroad along the North bank. It is not far from Colorado Springs, the second city in Colorado where we can find the workers, the machine and the equipment. It is quite arid; there is no curtain of trees blocking the view. So you will be able to see it from the car. When you put everything together, that’s the ideal river for us.
C It is an east-west axis, high mountains, gorgeous…
DB Next question is about the perception from different scales and viewpoints. You mentioned that the people seeing your work from the roads, the drafters seeing it from below. Your work has many different perceptions, can be seen from a plane, if you are a rafter from below…In classical art the composition is framed and you have an ideal perception. You don’t have a static view but so many kinetic perceptions: flying, driving, walking. When you first have an idea of your work of art, what do you have in mind as preferred view?
JC We told you already, we wish to create a work of art of joy and beauty.
C In real life, we enjoy the weather, the dry, the cold, the wind.
JC What Christo is saying is that we do not understand much about flat surfaces, but if we are in Florence and we are looking at the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, I have tears in my eyes and it is flat.
C Our works are not static.
JC None of our projects were designed to be seen by the birds
C Of course it can be seen by plane, there are multiple perceptions. 
JC When we say we want to create a work of art of joy of beauty, we are talking only about us. This is how we are built, we are joyous and we love beauty, any kind of beauty. If you look at Hieronymus Bosh, it is horrible! Demons and hell, but what a great artist! If you look at Francis Bacon, there is no joy and beauty there, but what a great artist! It is only for us that we wish joy and beauty because that’s how we are built.
I remember when our son was 10 or 12 we were walking on Madison Avenue and I told Christo “Look at the girl across street, she is beautiful.” Christo said: “Yes, but her legs are not perfect”. And we started a discussion. Our son said “But mom, I thought that men look at beautiful girls, not women.” I said “We must look at everything beautiful; sunset, birds, flowers, women, everything that’s beautiful. that’s how we are built.”
DB It is a correct interpretation to say that your work is in collaboration with nature?
C We work in urban places.
DB Rural?
JC Yes rural. We have never worked in real nature.
DB I mean interaction with natural light, sunrise, sunset, weather…
C Oh, natural elements!
DB Yes.
JC The Mastaba is away from the city, in the desert.
C In every project we try to have human scale elements, telephone poles or houses or roads to give a sense of scale.
JC Even for “Over the River” the South Bank is not only the rocks that mother nature placed, but the rubble which came down when the dynamite blasted to make the highway. The North Bank is the rubble which came down when they blasted for the railroad. Only the water is from mother nature, all the rest is man-made.
JC Along where we want to place our work of art, there are seven villages. It is rural, like theRunning Fence was rural, 4000 cows!

For more information on Christo and Jeanne-Claude:
A video of the Gates: