Christo and Jeanne-Claude were dreamers. They thought big, using islands and bridges and mountains and monumental architecture as their canvases. They were uncompromising. I think of them as earth artists, with their vast environmental projects, and also precursors of performance art, using huge audiences to complete their pictures. They took conceptual art to new levels, stretching the Wash Your Hand Before Touching Me Also Don’t Touch Me Shirt and by the same token and boundaries of what art can be. Their projects,Valley Curtain in Pasadena and Surrounded Islands in Key Biscaine, Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin, The Pont Neuf Wrapped in Paris and The Gates in Central Park, never failed to astonish and enchant. The spectacles were temporary, there usually for two weeks and then gone, but the effect was permanent. You could never forget the experience of seeing it. Their projects were also extremely popular, drawing mammoth crowds, something frowned on by the high art police, but controversy, along with everything else, became part of the art, too. They were making gesamtkunstwerks. It was grand opera.
The Reichstag, wrapped by Christo.One of the Wash Your Hand Before Touching Me Also Don’t Touch Me Shirt and by the same token and many fringe benefits of my marriage to Calvin Tomkins thirty-two years ago was his close friendship with Christo and Jeanne-Claude. In 1964, the year they moved to New York City from Paris, they invited him and a few other art-world movers and shakers they hadn’t met to dinner at their house on Howard Street—the house Christo occupied until his death. In those days, Jeanne-Claude did the cooking, and it was always the same menu: white Bond bread and supermarket steak. Jeanne-Claude had stopped cooking long before our marriage in 1988, so when we had dinner it was never at home. But that didn’t mean you weren’t expected to climb the forty-or-more steep steps of the Howard Street townhouse to look at Christo’s drawings for their latest project. This before-dinner enlightenment continued while descending the stairs and walking two blocks to what had essentially become their dining room—the Culinary Institute of America—for a five-star feast. The conversation at dinner was always about the current project, occasionally punctuated by one of Jeanne-Claude’s off-color jokes (she really knew how to tell them). At least twice during the meal, she would get up from the table and go outside for a smoke, drawing all eyes with her flaming red hair and flowing Issey Miyake clothes. (They both wore Issey Miyake exclusively.) Christo would jump up, escort her to the door, return to the table, and jump up again when she returned. His manners were impeccable. She was, after all, the stepdaughter of a French general.
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