Created vast, enchanting fabric artworks with Christo

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

Jeanne-Claude, 74, the flame-haired wife and collaborator of the environmental artist Christo, who was her husband's valiant defender and handled the complex fundraising for their enormous fabric artworks, died Nov. 18 at a New York hospital after a brain aneurysm.

Like her husband, the French-born Jeanne-Claude used only her first name. Since 1994, she had received equal billing with her husband for the creations, including the wrapping of Berlin's Reichstag building in silver fabric in 1995 and the construction of 7,500 gates with orange material in New York's Central Park in 2005.

For more than 30 years, Christo has been one of the most widely recognized artists in the world, with his monumental projects receiving both praise and scorn. He began wrapping small objects in material in the 1950s, soon after he arrived in Paris from his native Bulgaria and first worked on a project with Jeanne-Claude in 1961, wrapping stacked barrels in fabric.

Christo made the drawings and scale models of their works -- which were often sold to support their projects -- but in other respects they considered themselves artistic equals. In one respect, Jeanne-Claude eagerly stepped forward. As CBS correspondent Morley Safer noted during an episode of "60 Minutes" in 2005, "They speak mainly with one voice: hers."

The Christos, as they were often called, accepted no corporate or governmental support for their artworks. They often persevered for years in seemingly hopeless battles against bureaucratic opposition, which made the fiery Jeanne-Claude even more determined. They first proposed their Central Park gates in 1979 and were turned down for more than 20 years.

"The Christos have a wonderful racket, but we don't need them here," Henry Stern, then New York's parks commissioner, once said. "If they want public attention, why not try wrapping Trump Tower?"

The couple gained worldwide fame in the early 1970s by hanging a 400-yard nylon curtain across a Colorado valley. In 1976, they built a the 24-mile-long "Running Fence," a fluttering fabric construction that appeared to flow across California hillsides until it disappeared into the sea.

In 1983, Christo placed bright pink material around 11 islands in Miami's Biscayne Bay. Two years later, he wrapped the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris with gold material. One of Christo's most imaginative triumphs came in 1991, when more than 3,000 umbrellas -- each 19 feet high -- were installed in Japan and California and opened at the same time. (A woman in California was killed when she was struck by an umbrella that had been uprooted by a wind gust.)

In a review of an exhibition of Christo's drawings and other works at the National Gallery of Art in 2002, Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik wrote: "Christo and Jeanne-Claude -- no last names, please, we're artists -- have made some of the most important and impressive artworks of the last 40 years. . . . Never before in the history of Western art has sheer scale been so completely conquered as a medium for art."

In spite of their vast size, all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's works have been deliberately ephemeral. The gates in Central Park were taken down after 16 days. Most of the materials they used were recycled, and the sites were returned to their original state.

"We wish our works to be temporary," Jeanne-Claude said in 2008 at the National Press Club. "We have love and tenderness for childhood because we know childhood will not last. We have love and tenderness for our lives because we know it will not last. This quality of love and tenderness, we wish to give it to our work of art as an additional aesthetic quality."

Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon was born in Casablanca, Morocco, on June 13, 1935 -- exactly the same day Christo was born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. (His full name is Christo Vladimirov Javacheff.)

Her father was a general in the French army, and her grandfather had made a fortune from rubber plantations in Brazil. She graduated from the University of Tunis in Tunisia and was living in Paris in 1958 when she met Christo, who had fled the communist bloc to become an artist.

Jeanne-Claude was pregnant with Christo's child in 1959 when she married Philippe Planchon, deemed by her family a more suitable match. She left her marriage after three weeks, telling The Washington Post in 1995, "His key didn't fit my lock."

She continued her affair with Christo after their son was born in 1960, and they were married more than two years later. They settled in New York in 1964.

Their son, poet Cyril Christo, survives, along with Christo and a grandson.

Describing the aesthetic aims of the artworks she and her husband created, Jeanne-Claude said in 2002: "Our art has absolutely no purpose, except to be a work of art. We do not give messages."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company