Christo, he who wraps things, is a major minor artist. His work belongs to theater, theater as in show-biz, theater as in war.
In the field he is fabulous. Christo, the commander, the wrapper of whole buildings, the interrupter of whole landscapes, attracts foes and allies, cajoles politicians, survives endless meetings and fights until he wins.
"Yeah, but is it art?" the multitudes may grumble when looking at a Christo, but the grumbling of multitudes is music to his ears.
But Christo's art, alas, withers in museums. To appreciate his wrappings of skyscrapers and statues, you had to be there in the field. The survey of his urban projects, which goes on view today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is a juiceless exhibition. Looking at his drawings here, his photographs and models, is like flipping through the playbill instead of going to the show.
No one will be baffled, outraged or amazed by this Christo exhibition. The drawings on display here, handsome as they are, are but pale evocations of the projects they portray. His fans, and they are legion, will find this Christo show distressingly conventional, classical and chic.
One idea (an old one) and one image (even older) dominates this show: that wrapping things in fabric lends them majesty and mystery is a truth that is not new.
The veil of the bride, the corpse's shroud, Superman's cape, the pennant that the Orioles won the judge's robe, the flag -- draped cloth suggests power, and artists have long known that. The sculptor who, in Greece, dressed the fates in marble folds, and the hostess who, for special feasts, unpacks the lace tablecloth, and Christo, who wraps buildings, are allies of a sort.
The image Christo shows us drips a thousand precedents. (Man Ray, the Dadaist, wrapped and tied a sewing machine 59 years ago). When Christo wraps a whole museum, a monument, a seashor, he immerses all who see his work in politics and theater. But the scale of the document drains the present show.
There is something mute and mighty about a building that's beern mummified, a statue that's been shrouded, but that sense of mystery is cut and contradicted by the New Ork chic of the present exhibition.
The pictures Christo shows us, with their penciled grids, collagings, documentary notations and shadowed colors, somehow call to mind much that has been seen before. When Christo wraps a building, he takes on the city, its zoning board, its bureaucrats, its know-nothing, policemen, its cityscape, its cars. But when he hangs his drawings upstairs at the Corcoran, the art museum context somehow turns them tame.
The temporariness of Christo's art is its greatest strength. That wall in Rome, that museum in Chicago, that statue in Milan, will fade back into commonness once unwrapped; the permits will expire, the gossip will die down. But static pictures in museums do not take on society, the bureaucrats, the moment. Instead, they take their place in a continuum that's timeless, positioning themselves among all other works of art.
Christo, a most charming man, says he is not interested in posterity. The feeling may be mutual. While they are being done, Christo's projects pulse with life, but afterward they pale. His performances -- theatrical, ambitious, skillful and outrageous -- are superior to his souvenirs. The Corcoran exhibit is made up of the latter. It was organized by Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art. It will close in Washington on Jan. 4.