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the column of lasting insignificance...
—for April 18, 2015 by John Wilcock

from the archives…

Many working partnerships, both in the art scene and outside it, don’t apportion the credit in what might be termed an equal manner. Is it just coincidence that the woman, however much she might contribute in support and inspiration, is the one who is most often short-changed? This is definitely not the case with that inventive team, Christo and Jeanne-Claude who, for the three decades I have known them, have shared twin credit for every one of the superb art works they have produced.

The best proof of what I am talking about can be seen in the movie by the Maysles brothers of the project in which the artists wrapped the Le Pont Neuf, a bridge across the River Seine in Paris. It may be the best film explaining how artists work that has ever been made.

First, Christo and Jeanne-Claude rented window space in a shop near to the bridge and filled it, for the edification of passers-by, with drawings and text explaining the artwork-to-be. Next came the really hard part: a seemingly endless series of face-to-face negotiations with the various bureaucrats whose job it was to monitor, approve or deny permission for such schemes. This was mostly Jeanne-Claude’s task. She’s a skilled and tireless negotiator who speaks fluent French.

All this, like almost every one of the pair’s ventures, stretched out over months, often years. When The Gates arrived, the hauntingly beautiful saffron curtains that billowed throughout New York’s Central Park, it had been a work-in-progress for twenty years. Continually turned down by dour and unimaginative parks commissioners, it was released in 2005 when a friendly and admiring Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave his assent. More than 800,000 visitors—six times the usual number--filed through the park, and as many as 90,000 additional tourists came to town in the two weeks the work was up. 

Then it was dismantled, the elements recycled and all traces of its presence removed. Like all Christo works—the Umbrellas in California, the 18ft high Running Fence along the coast, the Surrounded Islands of Biscayne Bay, the projects in Japan, in Germany, in Australia, an incomplete list—it had a pre-ordained ending. Workers were paid to erect it, paid to dismantle it, everything recycled, nothing remained in situ.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude exemplify everything about artists that I most admire. They visualize something beautiful that will give pleasure to those who see it. They plan to manifest their dream no matter how long it takes, no matter what it costs. Their patience is inexhaustible, their determination absolute. The very obstacles and setbacks that stand in the way of the dream are an integral part of the art itself.  And, as it doesn’t cost anybody a cent to see it, how is it paid for? Millions of dollars are needed.

And again, what the artists do is commendable. Eschewing grants, they sell no portion of the work or any ancillary souvenir products: no engraved trinkets, no mugs, no caps emblazoned with their work or their names. They finance everything themselves, a task that has become easier with every successive venture due to the huge sums dealers, collectors, admirers are willing to pay for preliminary studies, collages, drawings, pictures, videos, films, postcards, all an integral part and parcel of the work. A substantial collection of earlier work is also available.

Born the same day (June 13, 1935) in different countries, they have lived at the same lower Manhattan address since 1964 when they emigrated to the U.S. And because they have undertaken projects in so many countries, they have since become possibly the most widely-known artists in the world.



The artists in Berlin, 1995
Wolfgang Volz photos

Le Pont-Neuf , Paris, 1985
 

My respect for them has grown because they are so uncompromising in what they do, and although ambiguity is as intrinsic to art as misdirection is to magic, there is nothing hazy about Christo undertakings. The temporary nature of their projects, they explain, is an aesthetic decision, in order to endow the works of art with the feeling of urgency to be seen, and the tenderness brought by the fact that they will not last. “Those feelings are usually reserved for other temporary things” says Jeanne-Claude, “in our own lives, things that are valued because we know they will not last”

A FEW YEARS BACK when I devoted a cover story to their still-stalled Central Park work, The Gates, we talked about one of the things that irks them about media coverage. To begin with, it’s become a kind of headline shortage to refer to something Christo has ‘wrapped’, such as Key Biscayne.



Over the River, Arkansas
(projected for 2012)

Jeanne-Claude: “(We) never wrapped any islands (we) surrounded the islands. Most journalists do not understand the difference between ‘wrapping’ and ‘surrounding’ even though they should know that England is surrounded by water, it is not wrapped in water…. The nylon fabric of the Running Fence could not be used for parachutes—God forbid that anyone would jump with that kind of fabric.

Volunteers? NEVER—on any project Everyone (except J-C’s mother) who works is paid: normal wages for specialized professional workers, and just above minimum wage for non-skilled workers.”

As publishing a full-scale tabloid became less and less commercially viable, I began my newsletter Nomad, a four-page newsletter mailed worldwide In January 1973 noting how many backpackers were on the road, Nomad offered  tips on living rough, sleeping on beaches or in graveyards and earning money using primitive folk craft talents: macramé or stringing beads. We met one man at a bar on a Greek beach making his living costs selling simple necklaces he made on the spot. His only ingredients: horseshoe nails, wire, pliers and leather thongs -- all kept in an old tobacco can.

 

Nomad Letterhead

We noted the best places to get used camper buses and how to obtain student cards (even if you weren't a student). We reported on nude beaches and Greek cheese pies; overland tours to Nepal and living on a houseboat in Amsterdam; the best days to cross the border from Spain into Morocco without being stranded in the Sahara and what you needed for a 28-day tour of all South America. John Giorno wrote about his stay in a Buddhist monastery in India and Lillian Roxon offered guidance on successful hitchhiking Down Under.

Best of all, from a subscriber's point of view, was that we offered impressive-looking free Nomad press cards, "good for what you can get away with". And in some of the world's remoter outposts, our readers gleefully reported, you could get away with an awful lot.

—excerpt from Chapter 12 of Manhattan Memories, an Autobiography by John Wilcock available on amazon.com

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