Christo (1935-2020)

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Lost this week in the flurry of shocking events in Minneapolis and on the nation’s streets was the death on May 31 of environmental artist Christo Javacheff, known professionally as Christo. He was 84.

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With his wife, Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009, Christo specialized in massive sculptural pieces that shrouded iconic architecture and intruded on landscapes and lakes with colorful fabric, fences and floating walkways. Their purpose was to jolt the emotions of viewers and stimulate wonderment and joy, especially among their detractors. The bigger the better, and their artworks were impossibly large.

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In 2005, I had the good fortune to experience one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works in New York. On February 12, a bright, frosty morning, 7,503 orange vinyl „gates“ were unfurled at 8:30 a.m. from their tall rectangular frames along 23 miles of pathways in Central Park.

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In the weeks leading up to the event, debates raged in the media over whether „The Gates“ was truly art or a pop stunt. Some argued it didn’t belong in Central Park, a 19th century man-made woodland of perfection. Others insisted the work was little more than an ego-trip by outrageous artists hoping to dominate media attention by hanging out their saffron laundry.

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I loved „The Gates.“ I loved the idea when the project was announced, and I was over the moon when it was unveiled. On the morning of the 12th, I was steps from Christo and Mayor Bloomberg, who a New York’s chief executive was a remarkable supporter of the arts. Christo had been trying to get „The Gates“ installed for decades in New York, only to be rebuffed by mayors who cowardly feared being chastised by critics, Central Park conservationists and constituents. Bloomberg was the only one who saw the creative value and grace of such a grand-scale project, not to mention its impact on visitors. He got it, and I’ve admired him ever since.

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From February 12 to 27, the saffron-orange sheer vinyl sheets snapped and swayed in the winter wind, setting gray days ablaze. The waterproof material hung down and stopped about seven feet from the ground, so everyone could pass under them without the material hitting their heads. But if you were like me, 6 feet tall, you could reach up with your fingers and brush against the material.

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The day after „The Gates“ opened, a strange thing happened. The park grew increasingly crowded with people strolling along the walkways, bathing in the orange glow as their inner child came alive.

I made it a point to cross the park nearly every day just to experience the art’s sensation. There was something about that saffron-orange in the dead of winter that made you feel alive. And interestingly, the color seemed to change with the light, depending on the mood of the day. On gray, bitter days, the orange seemed muted and brooding, almost brownish. But the material still managed to turn the florescent landscape into a colorful stream of rectangles. On days of brilliant sunshine, the orange came alive, virtually shouting with happiness. Then there were the sounds of the material in a breeze, at times muttering and at other time sharply lecturing.

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When „The Gates“ came down on the 27th, part of me went with them. Something alive was removed and silenced. The pleasure that the material’s color and sound brought to the bewildered park was gone. Squirrels no longer stopped to stare white chewing on something between their front paws. Kids‘ on fathers‘ shoulders no longer reached up to touch them. And older strollers no longer could be heard debating their pros and cons. Something had been given to the city and was taken away in the brief span of 16 days. Gone forever. The circus had left town. My photos of „The Gates“ remain trapped on an old cell phone. I must free them.

So it’s somewhat ironic that Christo should leave us this week under the shroud of chaos. In the end, his death became the greatest disappearing act of them all. One day he was here. And the next, he was gone without a trace, becoming, as Jeanne-Claude once said, „Once upon a time.“

Here’s a 60 Minutes segment on Christo and Jeanne-Claude and „The Gates“…

Here’s a slide show…

Here’s „The Gates“ bracing against snow…

Here’s more…

And here’s another…

       

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