At the Fleming Museum, small versions of the very large works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude
If you ask people whether they’re familiar with Christo and Jeanne-Claude , you’ll likely get either an enthusiastic “yes” or a blank look. Prompt the latter individuals with “the artists who wrapped things” and, more often than not, a smile of recognition appears.
That is to say, almost everyone knows something about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s massive public-art installations created over nearly half a century — from the wrapped Reichstag in Berlin and Pont Neuf in Paris to the many more nonwrapped works, including “Running Fence” in California and “The Gates” in New York City. This public familiarity is a curious thing, since the installations themselves have “altered the environment,” as Christo puts it, only for a few weeks at most. It’s not like you can go to a gallery or museum and see the works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude hanging on a wall.
Except that, at Burlington’s Fleming Museum  right now, you can. Or at least you can get an idea of their hugely ambitious projects through the drawings, prints, sculptures, collages, photographs and artifacts that make up “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Tom Golden Collection.”
The nationally touring exhibit has begun its run at the Fleming. Director Janie Cohen explains simply, “I saw it [in California] and thought it would be a valuable thing to bring to the community.” Indeed, its contents, collected by a longtime friend and associate of the artists, are fascinating, enlightening and surprisingly rewarding.
Described as a Sonoma County “real estate agent and nurseryman” in an accompanying catalog, Golden first encountered Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1974, when they appeared before a local planning commission to make their case for “Running Fence.” That project would, two years later, manifest in an 18-foot-high fabric “fence” billowing across 24.5 miles of Sonoma and Marin counties. Golden befriended the couple and, over the next 27 years, worked on several of their projects, for which he took artworks as payment. Upon his death, the pieces were bequeathed to the Sonoma County Museum of Santa Rosa, Calif., which, with the help of Landau Traveling Exhibitions, has put the show on tour.
Christo himself spoke to an enraptured, standing-room-only crowd at the University of Vermont in late September. After a 51-year partnership, he now appears sans Jeanne-Claude, who passed away last November in the couple’s adopted home of New York City. Generous with his time, the artist talked at length about two works in progress — “Over the River,” an installation that would straddle the Arkansas River in Colorado, and “The Mastaba,” a lopped-off pyramidal stack of 410,000 oil barrels, proposed for the United Arab Emirates. Then Christo graciously answered questions from an eager audience. Everyone in attendance seemed to agree his talk surpassed even the highest expectations. The man knows how to work a room.
There are two reasons why so many people have heard of this Bulgarian artist and his joined-at-the-soul French partner, both born on the same day in 1935 (as Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon): One, the extraordinary physical scale of their installations, and the vision and audacity behind them, tend to generate a lot of media attention. Two, the couple have explained their works, while asking permission to carry them out, to more small-town councils; city, state and national officials; and rural and urban land owners than any other artists in history. Their listeners have included a lot of individuals who might not otherwise know the first thing about art.
“Everything in the world is owned by somebody,” Christo told the Burlington audience. ... The hardest thing is getting permission.” As he talked, it became clear that the collaborative process itself — even the months or years of cajoling petty bureaucrats or wading through environmental permitting — defines the art as much as the finished installation does. “I even enjoy the people who scream against me,” Christo vowed. “They are a part of my work.”
With the scale and accessibility of their works, he and Jeanne-Claude have distinguished themselves in the art world. And there is yet another distinction: As Christo explained, never have they taken a dime of public or private money for their projects. No grants, loans or corporate sponsorships. Nor have there been, remarkably, any licensing deals — no tote bags, mugs or even posters. Christo does allow a few publishers to sell signed prints, but the sales benefit the nonprofit Nurture New York’s Nature.
A statement on the artists’ website clarifies this purist position: “Refusing this money assures them they are working in total freedom.” (Though the site acknowledges Jeanne-Claude’s death, the operative pronoun throughout is still “they.”) And, Christo noted at UVM, everyone involved in a project gets paid. When someone in the audience asked how one could volunteer to work with him, the artist replied succinctly that one couldn’t. “You can’t fire volunteers,” he explained.
Every project has been funded through the sale of Christo’s individual “preparatory studies,” such as the ones on view in the Fleming. (He and Jeanne-Claude came up with ideas together, but he has made the drawings according to the website.) While items in this museum collection bear no price tags, of course, an auction ad in a recent issue of Art in America offered a clue to their value. Up for bid was a 57-by-96-inch mixed-media work on paper of “Surrounded Islands.” The drawing shows one of the 11 small islands in Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, that Christo and Jeanne-Claude skirted with floating pink polypropylene fabric in 1983. Estimated value: $150,00 to $200,000. And that’s the going price for such a collector’s item now. Christo clearly had to create and sell many smaller works to fund the couple’s multimillion-dollar installations.
Golden’s collection consists of these smaller pieces, but to view them is to be awed by magnitude. A by-the-numbers accounting of each project is staggering:
“Valley Curtain,” a bright orange expanse of orange nylon polyamide across Rifle Gap in the Rocky Mountains, spanned 1300 feet and rose to 365 feet.
For “The Umbrellas,” a U.S.-Japan coproduction, 1340 blue umbrellas — 19 feet tall and 28 feet in diameter — clustered in a green valley north of Tokyo, while 1760 yellow versions dotted an arid stretch of California.
It took 119,603 square yards of silver polypropylene fabric to wrap the Reichstag, a project conceived in 1971 and finally realized in 1995.
And it goes on. A master of documentation, Christo records every fact and figure with the precision of an architect.
In fact, the drawings and lithographs in the Fleming exhibit are strongly architectural, with rules, numbers and other handmade notations suggesting the artist’s vision. But this is not to say they are all straight lines and mathematics. A number of the artworks are made three dimensional — and oddly charming — with fabric, polyethylene and twine relief elements. In the photo-collage for “Wrapped Trees,” a project proposed for the Avenue des Champs Elysées in Paris, the trees are wrapped. “Wrapped Armchair Project” is a hand-collaged lithograph of a single overstuffed, cotton-wrapped chair, mounted on a panel and encased in clear Plexiglas. Bisecting drawn lines on the gray background add to the sense of dimensionality.
A legend informs viewers that Christo and Jeanne-Claude worked with chairs as early as 1958. As a young artist in Paris, Christo was fascinated with the transformation of everyday objects when they were obscured, package-like. It was just a matter of time before he and Jeanne-Claude were wrapping a coastline in Australia, an art museum in Switzerland, a historic bridge in Paris.
Asked by a Burlington audience member why he wrapped things, Christo gave an answer that evoked Rodin’s sculpture “Monument to Balzac” … and how much more magnificent the French novelist looked robed than he would have naked.
But if the artists found concealment provocative, Christo pointedly notes on the website that their wrapped works are few compared with their entire portfolio. No doubt a number of Vermonters witnessed “The Gates” in New York City in February 2005 — a project first conceived in 1979. Throughout 23 miles of serpentine paths in Central Park, Christo and Jeanne-Claude planted 7503 goalpost-like gates 16 feet high and 12 feet apart, from which hung loose, saffron-colored curtains. The poles of the gates, Christo told his Burlington audience, collectively used two-thirds the amount of steel in the Eiffel Tower. It has since been recycled.
Public art on this scale, experienced by so many people, is simply inspiring. “I refer to this as ‘extreme art,’ visually, aesthetically and community-wise,” says Cohen. What will surprise people who take in the Christo and Jeanne-Claude exhibit, she suggests, is “the overall impact of the work, and how many of them they were able to achieve.”