Christo Has Paris in (W)raptures!

At the age of 83, Christo is about to make a life-long dream come true. As far back as 1962, the Bulgarian-American artist and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, already wanted to use a huge canvas to cover the Arc de Triomphe, a leading symbol of France. Entitled Projet pour Paris, Place de l’Etoile-Charles de Gaulle, this work will be on show from April 6 through 19, 2020*, as part of a retrospective exhibition on the artist’s years in Paris at the Pompidou Center.
A wrapped-up Arc de Triomphe: Projet pour Paris. © André Grossmann/Christo and Jeanne-Claude

At the same time in Paris, the bouquet of tulips by Jeff Koons will be standing proudly in the gardens of the Petit Palais. It is tempting to draw comparisons between these two American artworks, which share large-scale dimensions and a technical complexity in their installation. But the similarities stop there, as the two designers are opposites in their approach. Christo’s works are temporary and free – both for visitors and for the city or country in which they are found – whereas the pieces by Koons, a former trader who became a contemporary artist, are above all part of promotional, financial, and often opaque operations.

While Koons has a penchant for speculative industrial art, Christo cultivates a fascination for experience and enchantment. It was in Paris that the Bulgarian-born American artist and Jeanne-Claude (his French wife, who passed away in 2009) met in 1958. They lived and worked in the French capital until 1964 when they moved to New York, where Christo still has his studio in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. The pair made a name for themselves with a series of groundbreaking works, such as covering the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1969, hanging an immense orange curtain in a valley in Colorado in 1972, running a 25-mile canvas banner through the countryside north of San Francisco in 1976, encircling the islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay in 1983, wrapping the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris in 1985 and the Reichstag in Berlin in 1995, and installing thousands of saffron-colored gates in New York’s Central Park in 2005.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Gates in Central Park, 2005. © Christo and Jeanne-Claude

These urban and rural projects – described by Christo as “environmental art” – are all united by their use of canvas. This simple material “reflects the nomadic nature of the project, as the work is created quickly and only lasts a few days, just like tents used by nomadic tribes,” said the artist in an interview with France-Amérique in 2011. “The canvas moves in the wind, and is never static. There is a dynamic and highly sensual physical side to it.” The one set to cover the Arc de Triomphe will be comprised of 270,000 square feet of bluish-silver recyclable polypropylene.

Previously in Paris: Pont Neuf Bridge

The Pont Neuf project was even more ambitious. The bridge spanning 460 feet long required more than 430,000 square feet of fabric, 12 tons of steel cabling, and the work of 300 professionals managed by 12 engineers. Its installation alone was an achievement! The work was exhibited for two weeks, with the goal of offering a new perspective on the city’s oldest bridge. “The canvas covered every architectural detail and unified all its anecdotal elements,” says the artist. “The only thing that remained was the very essence of the Pont Neuf bridge.”

The Pont Neuf project, 1985. © Christo/Wolfgang Volz

After the exhibition, all that will remain is the eternal memory of an extraordinary experience. Those who walked across the wrapped-up Pont Neuf in 1985 will never forget it. Neither will those who wandered through the gates in Central Park. Either you lived it, or you didn’t. The only traces left are drawings, collages, models, and photographs. The artist’s preliminary studies are comparable to those of an architect, and are now sold to the highest bidder at unique auctions. The princely sums paid enable the artist to finance his future projects, unlike Jeff Koons and his tulips. “This gives me real artistic freedom and total independence,” says Christo. He also likes pointing out his works cost French taxpayers nothing, and he refuses all donations and official financing. In a word, the polar opposite of Koons.

*Due to the Covid pandemic, the installation will be postponed to September 17-October 3, 2021.

Article published in the May 2019 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.