Features Dec 9th, 2009


Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Gift To Detroit 

By Robert del Valle for Real Detroit Weekly
“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention, ...”  This article will focus on and (hopefully) celebrate three things: a glorious name in art, the two people who made that name glorious, and the memory of a very important, talented woman ...

On December 11, the Museum of New Art (MONA) will host a reception at its new Detroit annex within the Russell Industrial Center. The occasion will mark the awarding of the Prinzhorn International Art Prize to six creative individuals: Olaf Breuning, Nicole Eisenman, Tracey Emin, Dana Schutz, Jessica Stockholder and … Christo and Jeanne-Claude (Lifetime Achievement recipients). Yes, that seems like seven artists to us as well. But Christo is a collaborative name. Particularly now in the wake of Jeanne-Claude’s recent and unexpected death.

To those of you only vaguely familiar with Christo, let it be sufficient to mention Running Fence, or The Gates,
or any number of equally remarkable and controversial works. Let it also be a gross understatement to say the name Christo is synonymous today with an artistic vision that enjoys that rarest of justly-awarded adjectives: transcendent. The Christo exhibit, which will be showcased at the reception, will consist of signed pieces of their works (many of which involved surrounding nature with fabric: trees and even islands become temporary works of art) and a variety of collages and photographs. MONA’s Jef Bourgeau took time away from preliminary labors to answer these questions pertaining to both the show and the featured pieces.

This is a comprehensive exhibit focusing on two very controversial artists — but is it more?

The Christo and Jeanne-Claude exhibit covers four decades of projects. The show is comprehensive in that sense, but only as a document of the projects themselves — mammoth undertakings both in time to implement and in size achieved. Still, none of the original artworks exist today. They all vanished within weeks of their creation, even though some may have taken decades to eventually be realized.

“They all go away when they’re finished,” Christo has said without regret, “giving our works an almost legendary character.”

And so, only the preparatory drawings, collages and photographs are left. The stuff of which this exhibit is made - forty reproductions of the preliminary work and photo prints of the completed projects.

So, I don’t believe the artists are controversial in any sense other than by the scale of their work. In fact, they have often denied their art has any meaning beyond itself.

"For them, the purpose of their art has been to simply give new perspective to familiar landscapes, to refresh and draw attention to these sites — even their overly familiar urban-scapes. Their art, which is so strong and majestic, rejects any meaning beyond itself. Perhaps, that's where its power lies and builds upon itself. It’s pure." (from Wikipedia) 

Finally, if ciyrse, it is more than just an exhibition. It is the only possible forum to a lifetime of art. Albeit, by proxy through photographs and prints. One of the beauties of this exhibit is that it reflects the artists’ entire life.

This is “superficially” a photo exhibit. There is a certain poignant (almost funny) irony about artists who can’t be showcased in the normal sense because of the nature (or sheer size) of their works. Once, that was Christo’s chief weakness — and now it can be regarded as the principal strength?

In a sense yes, although the work is split evenly between 20 each: photographic prints and reproductions of
Christo’s preliminary designs, drawings and collages. Still, their art only survives in these reproductions.

“I think it takes much greater courage as an artist to create things to be gone,” Christo said on this point, “than to create things that will remain.”

The strength in the work now remains in the documenting of it, in the preparatory prints, photographs and documentary films (several of which we’ll be screening during the exhibit, most notably Running Fences). It’s like a reverse conceptualism, with the actual artwork created first then later the documents and drawings being given all the more importance. As for such a showcase in Detroit (their first exhibit here), it would seem at first a refusal of everything Christo and Jeanne-Claude attempted. It collects their massive projects into one small place in the Russell Industrial Center, whereas the artists dispersed it across the world — from Europe to America to Japan. Such an exhibit now assumes the museum guest as a uniquely privileged viewer. Christo and Jeanne-Claude might never have regretted that their most famous work quickly disappeared from view, but the public, as forced archivists, can now marvel at the process of their art just the same.

This question is crucial — what precisely is Christo “doing” in the artistic sense? The naysayers will always ruminate on “sheets blowing in the wind” or “a field of umbrellas” and so forth. But critics simply cannot dismiss Christo out of hand and even a mystified public delights in the gorgeous novelty of many of these creations.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude approached their art as a formal-yet-heightened description of the real space and experience of landscape, with the intention of isolating its most elemental materials to be magnified by their aesthetic interventions. Nature has always been recorded by artists, from cave paintings to current landscape painting and photography. The two artists wanted to make nature and the world around them the subject of their work as well, but in new ways. They started by making these familiar “landscapes” into sculptures; separate yet still connected to their natural world.

It’s this blend between man-made materials and the actual landscape that perhaps seduces the viewer of their art, perhaps by its sheer scale. Their artwork is often as big as the landscape, as far as the eye can see.

Speaking of critics and the public — the two were always described as a surprisingly warm people with neither possessing a shred of that aloof egotism we often associate with artists. Would you agree with that assessment?

Totally. Sweet and generous and approachable. They may be tenacious in their ability to move mountains for their art, but generous with their time and hearts, and especially to fellow artists and young students. They responded openly and kindly to my overtures to them. I naively thought they might create something of some scale in Detroit. At least I thought I would make the pitch and see.

Jeanne-Claude was the negotiator, the organizer, the arbiter. She was tough, yes. They were both focused and totally occupied on pushing through their next project in Colorado (Over the River, a 40 mile canopy over the Arkansas River.) I had approached them before, first for a donation for our auction when we moved to Detroit’s Book Building in 2001 (they donated a framed signed original); next, I approached them for a piece to enter into the museum’s permanent collection: Gratis. They were the first to donate a piece (out of a final total of 200 artists), a small wrapped package that will also be on exhibit.

And so, with this recent request in September, I didn’t know what to expect. They were well aware the museum had no real funding. But, the Russell Industrial Center offered to be as generous as possible for any installation the two artists might dream up. We even started to count empty oil barrels on the property.

In the end, Jeanne-Claude generously donated the exhibition we will be presenting, with all sales going to help the museum continue its outreach to local and international artists and galleries. She agreed to it on a Tuesday, and we had the work in hand by Friday. She was that good, that efficient.

Jeanne-Claude was an incredible muse and inspiration. Could you tell us more about her?

There was a great tribute in London’s The Guardian:
The flame-haired artist Jeanne-Claude — or Mrs. Christo, as she sometimes called herself — worked with her husband to mummify the Pont Neuf, to envelop a string of Miami islands in flamingo-pink nylon, to bind the German Reichstag building in aluminum fabric and to erect 7,503 billowing, saffron “gates” in Central Park, New York. She has died aged 74, from complications of a brain aneurysm suffered after a fall.

Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon was born in Casablanca, Morocco, where her father, a French general, was stationed at the time. She was born on exactly the same day as her husband and collaborator, Christo Javacheff. “Both of us at the same hour,” Jeanne-Claude liked to say, “but, thank God, two different mothers.” She often acted as spokesperson for the pair, explaining that as “twins,” they had an almost symbiotic relationship and spoke in one voice (usually hers). “Sometimes we would both have the same idea at the same time,” she marveled. She was much more than simply his muse or manager. Until 1994, all their artworks bore only Christo’s name, apparently because they thought it would be easier for one artist to become established, but since then the pair have shared the credit. It was entirely her idea, Christo said after the fact, to create Surrounded Islands (1980-83), which used six metered square-feet of pink fabric to outline an archipelago in Miami as if with a highlighter pen. Christo retroactively corrected the record and now they are acknowledged as joint authors of every outdoor installation they plotted from 1961 onwards. That year Christo proposed the wrapping of their first building, the École Militaire in Paris (perhaps an Oedipal proposition on Jeanne-Claude’s part).

Who among contemporaries (or among the rising number of new artists) could be likened as their peers?

I don’t think any other artists have touched their continuity of scale, project after project ... and their ability to push these projects through to the end. I see them as a bit of Gordon Matta-Clark with his “building cuts” when it comes to their urban work, such as the Wrapped Reichstag (Berlin — 1995), the Pont Neuf (Paris — 1985), or the Gates (New York — 2005); and a bit of Robert Smithson’s earthwork Spiral Jetty (Utah — 1970) with such land art as their Valley Curtain (1972) to Surrounded Islands (Florida — 1983).

Unlike these others (save Matta-Clark), Christo and Jeanne-Claude didn’t construct their art in some distant location. They often wrapped, surrounded, gated and stacked in heavily populated areas. They weren’t desert mystics in that sense. I think these other artists were a bit pretentious in that sense, building work they hoped to be permanent additions to their disturbed landscapes. Of course, there are several of their contemporaries who have mounted enormous earthworks, such as Michael Heizer’s City in Nevada, and James Turrell’s Roden Crater in Arizona. But large as each of these projects may be, they all shrink in singular scale to the sheer number of projects created in four decades by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

How does such an important exhibit come about in a long struggling museum in a long struggling city like Detroit? What specifically brought about this Christo and Jeanne-Claude exhibition?

To allow such an exhibit depends first on a space to hang it. The Russell Industrial
Click Image to Close Center was ideal. It makes a perfect statement about Detroit’s ability to reinvent itself without destroying its past. And the staff at R.I.C. have bent over backwards. And the same goes for the space in Pontiac. The Museum of New Art has been home there for five years now, with six galleries in the Oakland Arts Center. Also, as official framer for the museum, PF Galleries in Clawson has generously framed a number of the prints.

For the last year, the Museum of New Art has been organizing swaps — artist exchanges with other cities and countries. The notion was to break out of Detroit and exhibit our visual art in other major cities. (Kind of what’s happened with the recent music scene here. To a great degree, it’s still better known in other places, even London and Berlin, than at home. But eventual knowledge of this music also brought real respect and interest to home.)

That was the idea for the exchanges: we’d export Detroit art, and import from other more visibly established markets. The test run was Chicago. That was a fantastic experience. Then I thought, why not Europe and Asia? But the museum has never had any real funding. Which has always made us creative and on our toes with any challenge.

Solution this time: works on paper (photographs, drawings, rolled paintings, etc.). Inexpensive to ship, and so very doable. And we did it. The shipment to Beijing (all of it rolled into a tube) cost us just $299. And Detroit artists had an exhibition in this huge Chinese gallery. And some of China’s most important contemporary artists (like the Zhou Brothers) exhibited in Detroit.

The spin-off from the Detroit show in Berlin was having the German national TV show Aspekte send over a producer to film and cover the cultural scene in Detroit. The Detroiter show in Austria was the trigger that brought over Gerald Matt, director of the contemporary museum in Vienna. While here, he visited over a dozen Detroit artists’ studios and is planning a Detroit show for that museum (Kunsthalle Wien) for late 2010. So, that project has worked better than imagined. All the outside galleries were excited to come to Detroit: and Berlin and Bregenz pulled together the money to fly over their artists. And the Detroit artists got to fly to Berlin (thanks to a generous grant from Daimler Financial Services), and attend their own opening there.

That was stage one: get Detroit art visibly out there into other markets. Stage two: was to get the rest of the world to turn a positive eye directly on both Detroit and onto its arts community — to get us where we live. Most other major art markets have some sort of art prize ... I decided to revive the Prinzhorn (2005) — as a way to honor six important artists currently influential, and to honor “one” among them with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were a no-brainer. The most recent triumph of their long career was when New York's Mayor Bloomberg gave them the go-ahead for The Gates project in Central Park. This only expanded their already tremendous reputations. No artist since Andy Warhol has been so visible to the American public, so much a household name. They were on the 6 p.m. news across the country for two weeks, and even in the late night monologues.

Undoubtedly, the Christo and Jeanne-Claude exhibition - the couple's first ever in Detroit - was the museum's greatest challenge and it's greatest triumph to date. This upstart Museum of New Art, this "pipsqueak of an institution", this artist-run hole in the wall, was able to trump the city's other larger, more prestigious institutions; and, in so doing, has "cast a shadow across them". But in a positive way, as a challenge to do larger and brighter things themselves and, most important, to become more involved with their own art community, to see it as a strength not a nuisance, and to support what its own artists have to offer, both to the city as well as to the art world at large.  | RDW

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Prinzhorn Exhibition • Opens Friday, Dec. 11, 6 p.m.-10 p.m. • Russell Industrial Center - Building 2, 3rd Floor (Exit #54 on I-75); and Part II Saturday, Dec.12 from 1-8p.m. at Pontiac MONA - 7 North Saginaw, and on view there through January 16, 2010 • www.detroitmona.com







Christo and Jeanne-Claude Projects:

1961 - Project for the Wrapping of a Public Building.

          Stacked Oil Barrels and Dockside Packages, Cologne

1962 - Iron Curtain-Wall of Oil Barrels, Paris, 1961

1966 - 42,390 Cubicfeet Package Minneapolis

1968 - Wrapped Fountain and Tower, Spoleto.

          Wrapped Kunsthalle, Berne

           5,600 Cubicmeter Package, Kassel, 1967

1969 - Wrapped Museum, Chicago, 1968

          Wrapped Coast, Sydney, Australia, 1968

1970 - Wrapped Monuments, Milano

1972 - Valley Curtain, Colorado, 1970

1974 - Wrapped Roman Wall, 1973

          Ocean Front, Newport

1976 - Running Fence, California, 1972

1977 - The Mastaba, Project for UAE in progress.

1978 - Wrapped Walk Ways, Kansas City, 1977

1983 - Surrounded Islands, Florida, 1980

1985 - The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Paris, 1975

1991 - The Umbrellas, Japan-U.S.A., 1984

1992 - Over The River, Project for Colorado in progress.

1995 - Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971

1998 - Wrapped Trees, Switzerland, 1997

1999 - The Wall, 13,000 Oil Barrels, Gasometer,      

          Oberhausen, Germany

2005 - The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979

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