The artist who wrapped the Reichstag will take on the Arc de Triomphe next
"I am an artist who is totally irrational, totally irresponsible and completely free," says Christo, cheerfully speaking via video call from his New York studio and home -- a five-story, converted industrial building in SoHo.
Like everyone else in the city, his freedom has been severely restricted recently. Since lockdown, he hasn't ventured out at all and "nobody comes here," he says. "The invisible enemy can come at any time."
Christo, who turns 85 next month, has been widower since 2009 when his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude passed away. They had been together for over 50 years.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were born on the same day -- June 13th, 1935 -- in the same hour, as she used to say -- she in Morocco and he in Bulgaria. How did they celebrate their joint birthday? Christo smiles, "She was a very strange lady. She never celebrated anything. Radical. She was not sentimental. I don't remember any celebration of our birthday." They lived for their projects. He still does.
He seems in fine fettle, gesturing animatedly from his chair during the interview, but there are hints of frailty. Thin medical tubes are looped round his ears and into his nose. Five minutes into the interview, one tube comes loose, and we pause briefly for it to be tightened up.
When Christo needs exercise, he goes for a walk up on the roof above his studio and looks out onto the city. "The air is very clear, the sky very blue, very surreal," he says. New York at this time feels "intense." He's never known his adopted city quite like this.
Christo is currently preparing to realize one of his and Jeanne-Claude's long-cherished ambitions -- wrapping one of the most famous of all war memorials, the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris, in 25,000 square meters (270,000 square feet) of silver and blue fabric, strung together with 7,000 meters of red rope.
Extraordinarily, Christo first imagined wrapping the Arc de Triomphe in 1962. He still has the photomontage he made at the time, although it's not as precise or considered as his more recent images.
Wrapping historic monuments in colored fabric is what made the couple famous. In 1985, it was the medieval Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge across the Seine in Paris, which they coated in a golden sandstone color material. A decade later, in 1995, they wrapped the Reichstag building in Berlin in a silvery gray fabric, strapped down with blue rope.
I vividly remember, covering "Wrapped Reichstag" at the time. During the preview, Christo and Jeanne-Claude waded through a melee of journalists on top of the building, as purposeful and inseparable as Batman and Robin. They were fun and unpretentious. And their work was unquestionably a crowd pleaser. They started imagining the piece in 1971 -- 24 years later, they realized it. You could only stand back and marvel at their achievement. The New York Times sent their architecture critic over. He wrote lyrically, "It billows in the wind, it glows in the sun, it is tailored as primly as a dress and engineered as heavily as a battleship."
Beyond wrapping, Christo and Jeanne-Claude used fabric in other spectacular ways. They once planted a series of umbrellas (bright yellow and blue) across landscapes outside of Los Angeles and Tokyo ("The Umbrellas" 1991) at the same time. In the early 80s they used fabric to surround a series of small islands off Miami in tutus of flamingo pink ("Surrounded Islands" 1983). A project in New York saw them emblazon the pathways of Central Park with giant fluttering orange gates ("The Gates" 2005).
"Nobody needs my projects," says Christo, almost gleefully. "The world can live without these projects. But I need them and my friends (do)." This seems to be what Christo always says -- his simple and endearing way of pre-empting criticism and mockery.
The ambitious projects take a long time to come to together, and not all concepts are approved. To date, he says some 23 outdoor projects have been realized; 47 others rejected. And it's always the same story: "A thousand people who try to stop us; a thousand people who try to help us." Both the Reichstag and the Gates projects were refused three times before they finally got permission to go ahead. Jacques Chirac, then Mayor of Paris, resisted their attempt to wrap the Pont Neuf for nine years. Each project obsessed them both. It had to in order for any to succeed.
He has long been aware that his art can seem pointless to some but he also knows he creates things that are beautiful, fleeting and sometimes inexplicably profound. "You have this incredible joy, like a freedom. It cannot be bought. It cannot be commercialized. It cannot be possessed. Unforgettable."
Christo and Jeanne-Claude proved their ability to create unforgettable moments time and again, project after project.
He talks excitedly about the Arc de Triomphe -- the importance of the site, its "incredible history, its incredible power and commanding presence."
Christo still can't quite believe it's going to happen. He says it several times -- "I never believed that we'd get permission" and get it so quickly. "I was flabbergasted."
Christo, who is a partially trained architect, clearly relishes the engineering challenge -- the complexity of a wrapping of 50-meter (164 feet) high monument. Eight different companies, French and German, will be involved in fabricating the materials and putting them up. The Arc will be girdled by a series of steel belts. Helping hang the fabric will be a specialist team of climbers, who often work on building new wind turbines.
He holds up a small rectangle of the wrapping material they'll use -- silver on one side, blue on the other. It will shimmer in the changing light. Christo is particularly excited by the space beneath the Arc itself; how the material will hang and ripple in the cross winds "like a living person."
The wrapping was going to happen this spring but was delayed so as not to disturb nesting kestrels. Re-scheduled for this September, the project has now been delayed for a second time until September 2021 because of the coronavirus.
It all started with an invitation for an exhibit at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. As Christo was shown around, he was told that artists usually create a work for the piazza outside. His instant response: "I won't do anything in Paris except wrapping the Arc de Triomphe!" Just over a year later, with the support of French President Emmanuel Macron, permission was granted.
Like all their art works, it will have short life -- just 16 days. That doesn't bother Christo, nor is he concerned by the delay. Quite the contrary. In fact, he's "a little bit relieved" -- he laughs as he says it. The delays means more time to create the sketches, collages, photomontages that will help pay for the project.
He estimates that wrapping the Arc could cost nearly 13 million euros ($14 million). Christo and Jeanne-Claude always and proudly self-financed every single one of their projects. Hanging on the wall behind him in our interview is one of his new large Arc images. He reels off the precise measurements -- 96 inches by 42 -- and the cost: 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million). He's made nine or 10 drawings so far and they're all already sold.
During our interview, Christo habitually talks about "we" and refers to Jeanne-Claude as if she'd just stepped out of the room for a moment. In life, as he tells it, she was "an incredible critic, very argumentative, very clever" and a great problem-solver.
It seems that Jeanne-Claude largely did the deals , fought and sweet-talked the bureaucrats and politicians (her English was always better than his), and was great at selling the drawings that Christo would make. They both shared an iron will, an innate stubbornness and a commitment to their art.
Among all their works, where will Christo rank the wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe? "I don't like to rank," he says. "Of course, the Arc de Triomphe will be (at) the end of my life, if I'm still alive to see it," he half-laughs, rather, he says, it should be seen as part of "a connecting chain of things in my life of 85 years."
If Christo has his way, it won't be his last project. He still nourishes another long-held ambition -- to create a huge so-called "Mastaba" -- a giant mountain of stacked oil barrels -- in the desert in the United Arab Emirates.