The Mastaba will be the most expensive because it will be the biggest sculpture in the world. It’s bigger than the Pyramid of Cheops. It will be like the biggest stairway to heaven—a 500-foot-tall stairway.Christo
One cold winter day in 1964, I got a call from a young French woman inviting me to dinner in SoHo. Her name was Jeanne-Claude and she was married to an artist named Christo. I think they called me because Leo Castelli told them I could speak French. They had just arrived from Paris, where they created a scandal by barricading a street with barrels. Even then people called them “ChristoandJeanne-Claude,” as if the two names were one word. Later I learned they were born on the same day in the same year (June 13,1935). After a delicious dinner prepared by Jeanne-Claude of ketchup on white bread served on a paper plate, they explained how they worked, what they wanted to do, and why they were moving to New York. Already it was obvious they were two of a kind who had become one. Jeanne-Claude, a vivacious, beautiful redhead, would begin a sentence, and Christo, an intense, fast-talking fugitive from Communist Eastern Europe, would finish it in his Bulgarian-accented French, or vice-versa.
Their story was very romantic, and the work they planned to do seemed preposterous in the mid-’60s. But they were brilliant, charismatic, generous, and funny. They were also very courageous. Even if at the time it seemed they were building castles in the air rather than art objects, it was impossible not to like them or listen to their tales of fantastic projects and voyages. Already they had figured out a way of working, conceptualizing the projects together, which Christo—an extraordinarily gifted and academically trained draftsman—would then draw. The money to realize the vast projects, which became more and more ambitious as time went on, came from the sale of Christo’s drawings and collages; but the concrete realization of the projects depended very much on Jeanne-Claude’s amazing organizational skills learned, perhaps, from her step-father, a four-star French general under de Gaulle.
Although, in the end, their public works involved hundreds of millions of dollars, they amazingly chose to remain outside the gallery system. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works were widely collected and shown in museums, but they refused to have a dealer. In that way, they preserved their freedom from external pressures and created a system independent from the art world. Their works required years of preparation and negotiation with every kind of political body, from town meetings to parliaments all over the world, but they persevered and persuaded the powers that be for half a century. The works, like human life itself, were temporary and evanescent, moments of visionary beauty that lasted usually only two weeks. They wrapped the Reichstag in polypropylene; opened 3,100 umbrellas along inland valleys in California and Japan, uniting two continents; and The Gates turned Central Park into a magical tapestry. With the tragic passing of Jeanne-Claude in 2009, it was assumed Christo would not be able to go on. Instead he attacked with even greater energy the realization of the two last projects he and Jeanne-Claude were working on, the sparkling silvery cloth canopy stretching miles over the Arkansas River in Colorado and the massive bigger-than-the-pyramids Mastaba, the only large-scale work intended to be permanent, to be erected in the desert in Abu Dhabi. It was a project he and Jeanne-Claude conceived and pushed forward together. One can’t but think that in some way it will be a monument to their unique collaboration.
Last December I visited Christo in his studio in SoHo, in the same building where I had first met them for dinner.
BARBARA ROSE: This is where I first met you and Jeanne-Claude. You invited Frank Stella and me down for dinner. What was here before you moved in?
CHRISTO: It was empty. Except there was a store downstairs run by a Mr. Rosenbaum, who was a roof-maker. He owned the building but nobody was living in it. It had been empty since 1940.
ROSE: As I recall, the neighborhood was basically a slum in the mid-’60s. There was absolutely nothing around. No stores, no transportation, nothing.
CHRISTO: Nothing at all. It was illegal to live in this building then. In 1964, Jeanne-Claude and I became illegal aliens. That’s when we moved here from Paris. And for three years, we were illegal aliens living in an illegal building. [laughs] At that time, some artists started to move to SoHo and they put A.I.R.—artists-in-residence—up on their windows. So if a fire broke out, the fire department would know that somebody was living there.
ROSE: The A.I.R. law, which permitted artists to live in their lofts, basically created SoHo.
CHRISTO: Yes, but we could not file for A.I.R. status because we were illegal aliens. We lived on the fourth and fifth floor. Then we bought the building in 1973 and used the top to the bottom, including the basement.
ROSE: Are you doing anything illegal now? [laughs]
CHRISTO: Jeanne-Claude preferred saying we were “undocumented” over illegal. I escaped from my home country, Bulgaria, to Czechoslovakia and then to the West. That was illegal. I did many illegal things in those days.
ROSE: Artists do illegal things because they’re into transgression. They’re about going outside the boundaries. But much of your work has been about working through legal channels to create the impossible. Tell me about your latest projects.
CHRISTO: We have the two main projects in progress. One is Over the River that we started in 1992—it’s a project for the Arkansas River in the state of Colorado, where we will install six miles of fabric panels in eight different locations over the river. And we started the other project in 1977: The Mastaba for the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi. The first time Jeanne-Claude and I went to Abu Dhabi was in 1979, and we have been working on it ever since. In fact, I fly back to Abu Dhabi this Sunday.
ROSE: This is an important point about your projects. They take years, sometimes decades to realize. These giant installations don’t happen overnight.
CHRISTO: No! More than 30 years ago, we created a corporation called C.V.J. Corporation—that’s from my initials—Christo Vladimirov Javacheff. It is not a nonprofit. It is built to build our projects, to sell our original works of art, and buy back our original works of art. Each time we do a project, we have to pay chief engineers, lawyers, architects. For Abu Dhabi alone, we have people working in Stockholm, Berlin, London, Washington, D.C., New York …
We pay for it all ourselves. This is why we’re totally independent. I don’t ever do commissions. All projects are initiated by me. We are in control of them. Christo
ROSE: How much have you already spent on Over the River?
CHRISTO: We already spent $14 million for that project. That’s when nothing is built yet—$14 million to get permission. It’s so expensive just to conceive a project and that’s why C.V.J. Corporation needs to have a cash flow to pay the bills. All the time, bills come from engineers, lawyers, advisors. And as we all know very well, sometimes art galleries and museums are notoriously slow payers. We cannot say to our workers, “We cannot pay you Friday because Mr. Smith, who bought one of our works, hasn’t paid yet.” I’m the biggest owner of our works of art. We have no gallery. Our principal storage is in Basel, Switzerland.
ROSE: I didn’t know that. How do you care for the works?
CHRISTO: We have our own curator. Every time we start a project, we work with banks and we create a standby line of credit. It’s no secret. We used Citibank for Surrounded Islands, with Schlumberger for The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Credit Suisse for The Gates. Our art is the collateral to the banks. This is how we are free. We can sell the works of art for the price we like to. Basically, that is how it’s all done.
ROSE: And with no sponsorship whatsoever!
CHRISTO: None at all. We pay for it all ourselves. This is why we’re totally independent. I don’t ever do commissions. All projects are initiated by me. We are in control of them—the copyright, the trademark …
ROSE: How much does the current Abu Dhabi project cost?
CHRISTO: The Mastaba will be the most expensive because it will be the biggest sculpture in the world. It’s bigger than the Pyramid of Cheops. It is two avenue blocks by three city blocks and 500 feet tall.
ROSE: And the structure is made out of barrels?
CHRISTO: Yes, 410,000 oil barrels. Now, how did I pick Abu Dhabi in the first place? I didn’t put my finger at random on a map in the mid-’70s and say, “I’d like to go there.” In 1967, there was a famous curator named Bill Rubin who was preparing a landmark exhibition at MoMA called “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage.” Bill was very eager to make MoMA the first wrapped museum. So we started to make sketches, drawings, scale models. The idea was that when the exhibition was finished, we would wrap MoMA for two weeks.
ROSE: Two weeks is your usual duration for a project.
CHRISTO: Yes, we make a lot of temporary installations for two weeks. I was very eager to wrap a public building. We tried to wrap a museum in Rome, but that never worked out. In our proposal for MoMA, we also included the idea of doing a smaller-size mastaba.
ROSE: What do you mean by mastaba? It’s a form older than the pyramids?
CHRISTO: Mastaba is the old name of the mud bench found at the first urban place we know in the world—in Mesopotamia. In the front of the early houses, people built mud benches to sit. There were two vertical walls, a trunk top, and slanted walls. That geometric form is called mastaba. Even today, in the area of Abu Dhabi, they still call that bench a mastaba. And that form can be created by stacking oil barrels horizontally and at 60-degree angles. The mastaba for MoMA was very small, like a garden-style sculpture. During that time in ’67 we became friends with John and Dominique de Menil. They said, “Build a larger mastaba between Houston and Galveston.” I did drawings and sketches and scale models but the project went nowhere. We couldn’t get permission because of all the bureaucracy. At one point, we were going to do a mastaba in the parking lot at the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller in Otterlo, Holland, but we again failed to get permission. We also were not allowed to wrap the MoMA. The first wrapped museum we did was the Kunsthalle in Bern, Switzerland, in 1968. Harald Szeemann did a better job of convincing his constituents than Bill Rubin did at MoMA.
ROSE: Well, MoMA trustees are very conservative. How’s the bureaucracy in Abu Dhabi?
CHRISTO: [laughs] I’ll get to that. In 1972, we became friendly with a French ambassador to the United Nations, Louis de Guiringaud. De Guiringaud saw some of our drawings for Holland and Texas and said, “Christo, you will never have a chance to do that project in those countries. But there’s probably some chance to do the project in this nation that was just created.” That was right after a very powerful ruler, Sultan Al Nahyan, created a federation of seven sheikdoms called United Arab Emirates. I was so excited, I started to research this new country. Then de Guiringuad was nominated the Foreign Minister of France, and I remember Jeanne-Claude saying, “Louis, I would like to go to Abu Dhabi.” This is why the French foreign office organized our arrival in Abu Dhabi in 1979.
ROSE: So you’ve been working on The Mastaba while some of your other iconic projects were realized.
CHRISTO: We spent a lot of time between late ’70s, early ’80s traveling with our American engineer, who had also done Valley Curtain and Running Fence. We stopped going to Abu Dhabi when the war between Iraq and Iran started. But we never work on one project at a time. We were working on the drafting of the Reichstag since 1972. We were also working on the Pont Neuf project and Surrounded Islands and The Umbrellas. We work simultaneously on all of them. We started to focus on the work for Over the River during the Clinton administration.
ROSE: But that’s one of the fascinating things about your approach. You work on a project that spans multiple administrations, and one assumes the next administration could deny the permission of the former.
CHRISTO: Over the River was advancing under Clinton, but during the Bush administration the two secretaries of interior were terribly difficult. So after The Gates, Jeanne-Claude decided that we needed to move ahead with The Mastaba. In 2007, we selected the specific site of that project.
ROSE: Where exactly will it be?
CHRISTO: It’s 130 miles inland in Abu Dhabi in the most beautiful desert in the world called the Empty Quarter. In order to help construct it, we hired the service of the world’s greatest engineers. We’re not specialists ourselves, but they are the best engineering professors in the world. The biggest issue of the project is to install 410,000 barrels in the right place. They’re like a mosaic. The barrels come in 10 different colors.
ROSE: Will The Mastaba be a permanent work? You hardly ever make permanent works.
CHRISTO: This will be a permanent work. My dear, please. [laughs]
ROSE: The Mastaba will be there in the desert for people from all over the world to make pilgrimages to.
CHRISTO: The footprint of The Mastaba is almost the same size as Bernini’s plaza in front of St. Peter’s in the Vatican.
ROSE: Where are these barrels coming from?
CHRISTO: They will be made for us. There will be a factory fabricating the barrels very near to the site. We will move an entire factory to the desert. The biggest difficulty is the color. The color should be durable. The project is very much like the Eiffel Tower. You need to be able to do maintenance. We are working with one of the biggest chemical companies in the world, a German company called BASF. This company makes the colors for Mercedes-Benz and BMW, and they’re working to produce the most durable and incredible colors for us. But the site itself is so spectacular. Jeanne-Claude chose the landscape, and the landscape is very much part of the project.
ROSE: And how much is this going to cost? Just throw out a potential estimate.
In 1964, Jeanne-Claude and I became illegal aliens. That’s when we moved here from Paris. And for three years, we were illegal aliens living in an illegal building.Christo
CHRISTO: It will be the most expensive sculpture in the world. It costs maybe $350 million.
ROSE: Well, it’s worth it. [laughs]
CHRISTO: Curiously enough, it costs exactly the same amount as if we built the Eiffel Tower today. But you need to image what it will look like in the desert, with slanted walls, like the pyramids, so you can only see the one side when you look at it. It will be like the biggest stairway to heaven—a 500-foot-tall stairway.
ROSE: Do you now feel like a pharaoh?
CHRISTO: No, I do not feel like a pharaoh. I am very excited because it is a very beautiful thing we hope to do. It was very important to orient the vertical wall so that at sunrise the light on it turns gold.
ROSE: How long is it going to take to build?
CHRISTO: We need 30 months to build the project, if everything goes well, meaning after all the engineering is done, after finishing all the logistics—it’s a huge logistic thing. This is why we cannot tell you when it will be happening, but we need 30 months to do it.
ROSE: But you have the permission, right?
CHRISTO: Well, it’s not permission. It’s not exactly like that. You need to show commitment. Our biggest capital in Abu Dhabi is that we were there before everybody else, in ’79. And the family knows that. As a little background, the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is the founder of the United Arab Emirates. He was a great Bedouin. He created the federation in 1971. He had several wives, and the most loved, Sheikha Fatima, gave him six sons. The area of the project is called Al Gharbia, or the western region. It is run by one of the sons, Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
ROSE: Apparently he’s quite enlightened.
CHRISTO: Here is an unbelievable story. The rulers liked the memorial film we made for Jeanne-Claude in 2010 so much so that they distributed it to their wives. And the wife of the Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Sheikha Shamsa, liked the film so much she invited us to her house to show the Jeanne-Claude film and answer questions about The Mastaba.
And this is how the entire project really came together one or two years ago. Now I hope it will be realized. But each of our projects has its own journey. It is like a slice of our life. This is why we like to do these projects because each of these projects develops its own identity through the permitting process.
ROSE: And you never repeat yourself.
CHRISTO: We’d be stupid to do another Gates again. We already know how to do Surrounded Islands. Each of these projects is unique. We don’t know how to do it, and we discover what the project is along the way. In 50 years, we realized 22 projects and we failed to get permission for 37. You have to understand, some projects were refused multiple times. Reichstag was refused three times before we could do it. The Gates was refused once. The Pont Neuf was refused twice. Some projects were refused and we don’t like to do it anymore. Nothing is sure about our work.
ROSE: I’ve always wanted to ask you, why did you want to wrap the Reichstag?
CHRISTO: We started the Reichstag project in 1971. And permission was refused three times—in 1977, 1981, and 1987. Finally, in 1991, right when The Umbrellas were up in Japan and California, we received the call from the president of the parliament in Germany giving us permission. At that time the capital of Germany was Bonn, and between 1992 and 1994, we had spent more than 360 days in the city of Bonn, negotiating with the German parliament.
ROSE: But why did you pick the Reichstag in the first place? It has such negative associations. It’s a Nazi symbol.
CHRISTO: I will tell you the reason. I was born in Bulgaria, in a small town in the mountains. I lived in Bulgaria during a terrible Communist time. In September of 1956 I decided to visit my relatives in Prague, Czechoslovakia, right before the revolution in Hungary was starting. The Soviet tanks were in Budapest. So I escaped from Czechoslovakia to Vienna. I was a political refugee. I couldn’t speak any language besides Russian and Bulgarian. I had no relatives, no money, no anything. I went from Vienna to Geneva because Geneva is the headquarters of the United Nations for refugees. Finally I arrived in Paris in March of 1958, and there is where I met Jeanne-Claude. I was a political refugee for 17 years—I was stateless, I had no nationality. And of course I was scared that war would break out again and I would be sent somewhere else. When you escape something, you are still tied to it. That is why I was eager to do a project that was deeply involved with East-West relations during the Cold War. And the only place where East-West relations were meeting was in Berlin, which was organized by four allied forces into four military sectors: the British, the French, the Americans, and the Soviets. The only building that was in jurisdiction of all the allied forces was the Reichstag. Technically, the Reichstag was in the British military sector, but 100 feet to the east of the Reichstag was the Soviet military sector, and they all made sure it was never used to revive National Socialism or anything related to Hitler. This is why I chose the building. If I had been born in Nebraska, the Reichstag wouldn’t mean anything to me.
ROSE: So wrapping the Reichstag was a very personal choice.
CHRISTO: Well, in 1933, the Reichstag was set on fire. Hitler persecuted many left-wing people because of who was accused of starting the fire. And who was principally accused? A Bulgarian Communist!
ROSE: I think it’s important to note that you are never given the spaces by private or public groups. You rent the spaces—that way you have full authority on what you do with the site.
Jeanne-Claude and I, we do these things for ourselves. If somebody likes it, it’s only a bonus. We do things we enjoy visually. But you should understand, the work is not in the results. The journey is the work—it’s incredible.Christo
CHRISTO: Yes, for example, we paid New York City three million dollars to use Central Park for three months. We paid for the use of the Reichstag, we paid for the use of Pont Neuf, we paid for the land for The Umbrellas. We pay for everything, because we need to have the rights and the control. The moment we got permission to use Central Park for The Gates, there was a line of Hollywood films that wanted to use the park for their shoots. We said no. The same thing happened with the Reichstag. All of these opera singers wanted to use it as a backdrop for their recitals-Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo … All these things we said no to. We rented one kilometer around the Reichstag to be controlled by us. The same thing with all the projects. We pay $160,000 a year to the United States government to rent the 42 miles of the Arkansas River for Over the River. We started paying that rent in 2012. The thing you learn is that everything in the world is owned by someone.
ROSE: It’s very interesting, asserting total control-which one associates with authoritarian regimes-in what is very much a democratic process in terms of getting the agreements and permissions.
CHRISTO: I use a capitalist system. Marxist educated, I understand the capitalist system.
ROSE: Well, I always thought that you and Jeanne-Claude should be president! Together, you could run everything so much better.
CHRISTO: No, no, no. [laughs]
ROSE: You also pay all of the people who work for you on the project. That solves another social problem.
CHRISTO: Yes, we spend millions of dollars employing people. And since we work on multiple projects at once, there are teams all over. We’ve been working on the Arkansas River site since 1996. We discovered that 98 percent of the 42 miles of the river is owned by the United States Department of Interior, or the American taxpayer. So we had to bring the project not only to the local people of Colorado—the towns and villages and working people—but also to Washington. Then Bush was elected and we had to stop work on Over the River. But luckily Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York in 2001, so we could start work on The Gates. In 1979 we started The Gates project, but in 1981, Koch’s parks commissioner, Gordon Davis, wrote a 107-page report to say no, The Gates couldn’t happen. We tried again when Dinkins was elected, but it never worked out. After that was Giuliani, and it was “no way” with him too.
ROSE: You have to have a real aesthetic to understand the value of the project. You have to be an educated person like Bloomberg. He’s an art collector and very sophisticated.
CHRISTO: When he was elected, all of our efforts went into The Gates. We only returned to Over the River in 2005.
ROSE: How are you handling all of these projects without Jeanne-Claude? It must be so much for one person to take on.
CHRISTO: When Jeanne-Claude was with me, when one project advanced, we’d concentrate our resources, energy, and money on that project. But now I’m alone and I’m 78, and for the first time in my life I work simultaneously on two projects. It’s very complicated. And in terms of costs, it’s very draining. But I cannot wait because both of these projects need about 30 months to be finished.
ROSE: Why do you do these projects?
CHRISTO: Jeanne-Claude and I, we do these things for ourselves. If somebody likes it, it’s only a bonus. We do things we enjoy visually. But you should understand, the work is not in the results. The journey is the work—it’s incredible. These projects bring us to places that are so much richer than the art world or the art gallery or the museum. We get to work with so many different people. It’s like an adventure and it’s very exciting and it’s foolish. It’s totally irrational and useless. [Rose laughs] But Jeanne-Claude and I like to do them. Nobody asks us. We like to think them up and we like to build them.
ROSE: Well, it gives a vision of beauty to people.
CHRISTO: Yeah, that’s very important. It’s not a trivial beauty. But it’s also absurd.
ROSE: It’s a bit like magic. Now you see it, now you don’t.
CHRISTO: After living in a Communist country where I was oppressed by this terrible lack of freedom, this is probably the greatest freedom I can have. And one of the great things is that when we have a problem, we can only blame ourselves. We created it. Someone didn’t put it in our hands.
ROSE: I’ve met people who have worked with you that told me the experience changed their life or opened their eyes.
CHRISTO: People like to be there and to see something totally irrational, totally useless in some ways. The world can live perfectly without Valley Curtain or Running Fence-who cares about that?
ROSE: A lot of people care about it.
CHRISTO: But it’s not something that you need to justify by saying that it will make you better. No. It’s just our journey, Jeanne-Claude and myself. We enjoy the encounter with the new all the time. And we always like to return to the site of a past project. We went back to visit Australia in 2007. Jeanne-Claude and I did a project in 1969 outside of Sydney. We wrapped the coastline—these big 85-foot-high cliffs overlooking the South Pacific Ocean. We wrapped one and a half miles of coastline with one million square feet of fabric. I dislocated my shoulder because I was wrapping this boulder and slipped. We returned to that area, to that exact same place. Jeanne-Claude said we must have been completely nuts to try to wrap that coastline, but we were young in 1969 and we did it.
the thing you learn is that everything in the world is owned by someone.Christo
ROSE: Let me take you back to the first time we met. I remember in 1964 getting a call from these very nice people who only spoke French. Jeanne-Claude said, “Tu veux diner avec nous?” I say, “Mais oui.” And I remember this crummy little place and very nice people and Jeanne-Claude served for dinner a slice of white bread with ketchup on top.
CHRISTO: Yes. [laughs]
ROSE: I thought, “This woman is really incredible because I can’t cook either.” But I would be scared to serve this. Eventually you started serving Chinese takeout at your dinners. Then you moved up to great restaurants. But I always admired Jeanne-Claude because she couldn’t cook. All of her energy went into other things. And she was such a courageous, unbelievable, kind woman. Once I asked to borrow one of her red wigs and she said, “Of course.”
CHRISTO: She was an incredible woman. We were together for 51 years.
ROSE: But your relationship was so complementary because both of you are very volatile characters.
CHRISTO: We were both very argumentative. I remember in 1961 we were blessed to meet two of the greatest American documentary moviemakers, Albert and David Maysles. And since that time, they’ve filmed our projects. They made movies out of The Gates and Surrounded Islands and The Pont Neuf. Of course, now Al is older and David passed away in ’87. But they started to film The Gates in 1979 before we got permission. They have so much footage between ’79 and ’81, like 600 hours—meetings with Gordon Davis and the Koch administration. The Maysles wanted to find some moviemaker to help out. Al found this very young Italian-American, Antonio Ferrera, who helped Al finish The Gates film. Now, Antonio is filming Over the River and The Mastaba. He’s traveling with us now. So we use the same creative family.
ROSE: Lets talk a little bit about your art activities in Paris before you came to New York.
CHRISTO: I arrived in Paris in 1958. Paris was in turmoil because of the Algerian war. Then de Gaulle came into power. I lived in Paris between 1958 and 1964. The reason we emigrated to New York was because Leo [Castelli] did a group show that included my pieces in 1964. It was a four-artist show at his gallery on 77th Street: myself, Richard Artschwager, Robert Watts, and Alex Hay. Each artist got a wall. We stayed in New York for three or four months that spring. Then we came back again illegally. We went as tourists and then we disappeared because the visas expired. I remember we needed to hire a lawyer, and Ileana [Sonnabend] told us to use the lawyer that helped her to come to America. I finally got a green card in 1967.
ROSE: Wasn’t your original barrel barricade in the Paris street about protests?
CHRISTO: There were real barricades in the street over the Algerian war when I arrived in 1958. There were killings, shootings … But I did that piece in 1962 on the Rue Visconti. That wasn’t about a barricade over the Algerian war but about the Berlin Wall. I had just had my first exhibition of my life in Germany in 1961 where I showed small wrapped packages. That summer the Berlin Wall was built. Jeanne-Claude and I came back to Paris very scared that the Third World War would start. And I did a proposal to make an Iron Curtain from oil barrels, a barrel wall, at the Rue Visconti.
ROSE: So the barrels for The Mastaba go all the way back to the Rue Visconti in ’62.
CHRISTO: Yes. For the Rue Visconti, I only needed 89 barrels. And it was only up for one evening: six o’clock to one o’clock—illegally because they refused us permission. Jeanne-Claude and I decided to do it anyway. It stopped traffic. People got so upset. The police arrived …
ROSE: What artists were you hanging around in Paris at that time? Larry Rivers was there, wasn’t he?
CHRISTO: Yes, Larry Rivers was living there. And I met [Claes] Oldenburg and [George] Segal. I remember Ileana just opened a gallery at Quai des Grands-Augustins.
ROSE: Her first gallery. It must have been an exciting time artistically. But I know you had been an artist since you were a boy.
CHRISTO: I was 5 or 6 years old when my mother found I was drawing all the time, and she decided that I should have private lessons of art, meaning that after school, I had a private lesson and went to the studio of a painter and a sculptor and an architect. Then, to study art at the academy in Bulgaria was, at that time, based on the 19th-century model. Over the course of eight years you study architecture, painting, sculpture, and decorative arts. You have to learn everything. After your fourth year, you decide what you want to specialize in. I was in my fourth year when I escaped from that Communist country, so I always say I still have not decided yet what I am. The thing is, when we wrapped the Reichstag, The New York Times sent not an art critic but an architecture critic-Paul Goldberger-because they saw the wrapped Reichstag as architecture. The pro-jects have so many elements-architecture, painting, sculpture …
ROSE: How did you first meet Jeanne-Claude?
CHRISTO: When I was in Vienna, I did all of these odd jobs: I washed cars in garages and washed dishes in restaurants. But I was gifted at painting portraits—especially children and ladies. I went to their homes. This is how I met a lot of officers of the United Nations; I was painting the portraits of their wives and children. How I met Jeanne-Claude is that I painted a portrait of her mother in Paris.
ROSE: Did Jeanne-Claude’s mother call you to paint her portrait?
CHRISTO: I will tell you how it happened. The best connection to help me get rich ladies for portraits was through their hairdressers. [Rose laughs] I was renting an apartment from this guy in Paris who was a famous hairdresser—Jacques Dessange.
ROSE: He was the biggest hairdresser in Paris.
CHRISTO: Yes, he was the hairdresser for Brigitte Bardot. One day he called me and said, “For Christmas I’d like for you to paint a portrait of Brigitte Bardot.” I did many portraits of fabulous people. And one was of Jeanne-Claude’s mother. Jeanne-Claude’s stepfather was director of the École Polytechnique. He was a four-star French general. So I met Jeanne-Claude by going to their house and painting her mother. I remember we were once invited to a lunch where I met Mr. Robert Oppenheimer—who was sort of kicked out of America and was hired by Jeanne-Claude’s father as a professor at the École Polytechnique. She was from a very interesting family.
ROSE: Yes. Isn’t there a photograph of Jeanne-Claude playing tennis with de Gaulle?
we always flew separately so the project could not die-so they would survive even if one of us didn’t. Christo
ROSE: Getting back to the projects, I think some viewers may mistakenly see your work as a kind of land art. When it really has nothing to do with that movement. I don’t think there’s much of a connection with earthworks.
CHRISTO: I don’t, either. What I do is many things but it is not land art. I like architecture very much, I like urban planning, but most land art is rural, and our projects tend to be urban or rural but always in places where people live. Our projects take into account the scale of homes and the people around them. The projects are involved with those kind of elements. They’re done for humans. We always try to do work in spaces that are highly used by humans. But a vital part of the project is the permitting process. Imagine 4,000 pages of documents written for a work of art that doesn’t yet exist. Do you know any other artist who can say that? The making of the project is the soul of the project. This is why we do not do commissions. We like to generate our own energy.
ROSE: There’s also no negativity in your projects. Many of the earthworks seemed to me to be a negative gesture. And many were commissioned.
CHRISTO: Our projects have their own identity. It would have been preposterous for me to say that I knew about the Reichstag project in 1971 when we started. How we got permission was an incredible story; it was probably the first time in the history of art. To get the permission for the Reichstag project—because the Reichstag is owned by the German nation, 80 million Germans—the chancellor of Germany, Mr. Kohl was so much against the wrapping of the Reichstag that he elevated the entire permitting process to a full 70-minute debate in the parliament of the nation. I don’t think there was ever another work of art that was decided by a debate in the parliament. Finally, in the parliamentary vote, we defeated Kohl. So the work has entered political history.
ROSE: Everything is in the interaction—and that’s not the case for land art.
CHRISTO: I always say all our projects have the two distinct periods: the software period and the hardware period. The software period is where the work exists in the mind of the thousand people who try to stop us and the thousand people who try to help us. And this is the period when the work exists only in the mind and in the drawings. And then there is the hardware period, where the project gets built.
ROSE: I think your projects correspond much more to the great court festivals of the past.
CHRISTO: Except that is done by the permission of a king. Part of the magic is that nobody can buy the project. They are all about freedom. Nobody can own them because freedom is the enemy of possession, and possession is equal to permanence. This is why when the project is exhibited for a precious two weeks, nobody—not even myself—owns them. That is why the principle element is cloth or fabric—it’s the nomadic quality of the project. They are fabricated off-site, and finally in a matter of a few days or hours, they are there and then they are gone forever.
ROSE: What happens to the fabric when you are done with a piece?
CHRISTO: Because we’re a capitalist corporation, the same moment we buy the materials—for example we bought 5,000 tons of steel for The Gates, which is two-thirds the amount needed for the Eiffel Tower—we find out who will buy them back from us.
ROSE: So hundreds of millions of dollars have passed through your hands. Do you ever make any money?
CHRISTO: I make money through my projects. The only thing we have is this place here. I don’t own anything else except for works of art in storage in Basel.
ROSE: What about the 37 unrealized projects. Are there any that you hope will one day come to fruition?
CHRISTO: For the moment, no. One of the 37 projects was in 1975—we tried to wrap the monument of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona. We tried to negotiate it with the mayor of Barcelona in ’76 and ’77. He said no, and he was assassinated—but not by us. There was a new mayor of Barcelona in ’79, and he also said no. Now, in 1984 there was that famous mayor of Barcelona, Pasqual Maragall, who brought the Olympic games to Barcelona. And he sent a telegram: “Christo, Jeanne-Claude, please come to wrap the monument.” And we said, “We don’t like to do it anymore.” [laughs] Why should we spend our money if we don’t like to do it anymore?
ROSE: How do you choose the color of the fabrics? Like the pink for Surrounded Islands in Florida?
CHRISTO: In our sketches and live-site tests, all of the projects start with white fabric. The color comes much later. The color only comes when we know more on the site and about the area. For the pink in Surrounded Islands, I was very uneasy with the pink, how strong that pink should be. You can see in the very early sketches, this pink is much quieter. It got more and more and more intense as we went on. So it changes as our understanding of the project changes.
ROSE: What is the most number of workers you’ve had on a single project?
CHRISTO: The most number was The Umbrellas because it was actually two projects simultaneously—yellow and blue, and we had 2,500 workers. The payroll a day was about $600,000. And once the project is up, we have keepers or monitors all the time.
ROSE: Ultimately, how do you end up picking the sites? What leads you to certain destinations and monuments and not others?
CHRISTO: We often come to them by friendships—by the idea that we know people there. For Over the River, the reason we picked the United States was that Jeanne-Claude was fed up with Bonn. And most of the great rivers are in the United States. We were not specifically planning to do it in Colorado. For The Umbrellas, we didn’t intend to do the project in California either. In 1969, I stopped in Japan on the way to Australia. We became friendly with many people in Japan and we went there often for exhibitions and lectures. People in Japan were always asking, “When are you going to do a project here?” I like Japanese people because they are doers. I can’t stand lazy people. I thought, “Okay, I will do a project in Japan, but it will be not only in Japan—it will be like a diptych, like painting in two parts, like two canvases together make one work of art.” I picked the U.S. and Japan—the two richest countries in the world at that time. They had a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. We chose the West Coast of the United States, because the West Coast is still connected to the Pacific Rim. So we chose two sides, very simple. The project is only 40 kilometers from Narita International Airport, and only 60 miles from Los Angeles International Airport, The poetic side of the project happened on October 9, 1991 for me. The Umbrellas opened in Japan at eight in the morning, and then I took a flight the same day to the United States and watched them open in California on the other side of the ocean.
ROSE: You and Jeanne-Claude famously never took the same airplane.
CHRISTO: No, we always flew separately so the project could not die—so they would survive even if one of us didn’t.
BARBARA ROSE IS A NEW YORK-BASED ART HISTORIAN AND CRITIC. SHE IS CURRENTLY WORKING ON A NEW BOOK, SOUVENIR: JASPER JOHNS AND THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THE OBJECT.