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Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Gentle Disturbances
by Kathleen Lang

Recently, we attended a lecture given by the collaborative artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, CA. As part of a series sponsored by the San Jose Museum of Art's "Surroundings" exhibit, this particular lecture featured an overview of their work and a question and answer period.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude at book signing in San Jose
Photo: Doug Lang

The two artists are best known for their site specific installations that wrap an architectural monument: The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Paris, 1975-85, September 1985, Wrapped Reichstag, Project for Berlin, 1971-95, June 1995.

Or, redefine a landscape: Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California 1972-76, September 1976, Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami Florida, 1980-83, May 1983, and The Umbrellas, Japan-USA, 1984-91, October 1991.

Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Miami, Florida, 1980-83
Christo & Jeanne-Claude
Photo: Wolfgang Volz
1983 Christo

These were all enormous projects in terms of scale, cost and planning. Sometimes it can take years for the artists to obtain the required permits to carry out their plans. The permit process often requires extensive environmental studies, costing millions of dollars. Avoiding words like "red tape" or "bureaucracy", Christo and Jeanne-Claude simply call their quest to get a project approved as "process." Perhaps what is most amazing is that the artists pay for all the materials themselves. They never accept grants or donations to support their art ventures. Refusing such financial assistance assures their artistic freedom. This approach is all the more incredible when we learned that the cost for the Umbrella project alone was $26,000,000.!

The Umbrellas, Japan - USA, 1984-91
Christo & Jeanne-Claude
Photo: Wolfgang Volz
1991 Christo

In order to pay for these artworks, Christo makes drawings, scale-models and preparatory studies and sells them to the public and collectors through art dealers. And when they have earned enough money, they begin to execute their project.

Jeanne-Claude described their philosophy to "create works of art of joy and beauty." There is no purpose whatsoever she says, "it's just a work of art." But if you are familiar with their work, you will know that there is far more to their art.

Because their works disrupt large buildings or vast landscapes, the artists insist that the viewer perceive his environment differently. Christo calls these disruptions to our surroundings as "gentle disturbances." The resulting effect has been described as magical. By wrapping or surrounding, the artists have now re-created an environment that at times even surprises the artists themselves.

A good example is Running Fence that traversed over twenty miles through portions of Marin and Sonoma counties in 1976. Although all segments of the fabric was the same, the qualities of the fabric would be altered according to the changing light and shadow. At times the sun's changing position would create a luminous quality to the fence. And as the wind blew, the fabric would create an ethereal sound in the otherwise quiet landscape. These elements of environmental chance would not have been able to be controlled by the artists.

Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties Coast, 1972-76
Christo & Jeanne-Claude
Photo: Jeanne-Claude
1976 Christo

Jeanne-Claude said that during their entire artistic career the most difficult part of every project is getting permission and the appropriate permits to carry out their projects. Take a second look at the dates of each artwork above and you will see how long each project can take from conception to completion. The longest project, Wrapped Reichstag, for example, took 23 years to complete. This degree of persistence is underscored by the fact that each project only lasts 14 days. After that, the project is disassembled and all the materials are recycled.

Wrapped Reichstag, Project for Berlin, 1971 - 1995
Photo: AK Ciesielski
1995 Christo

Currently, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have two projects planned, but are still going through the permit process: The Gates, Project for Central Park, New York City and Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, Colorado. We don't know where the artists find their endless energy, but we are indebted to their ongoing commitment to creating some of the most innovative and imaginative art.

The Gates, Project for Central Park, New York
Collage 1981: 71 x 56 cm (28" x 22")
1981 Christo
Photo: Wolfgang Volz


Over The River, Project For Arkansas River, Colorado
Drawing 1992. 106.6 x 165 cm (42" x 65")
1992 Christo
Photo: Simon Chaput

For more information about Christo and Jeanne-Claude, please visit their web site at

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