One of the most innovative and original artists of modern times, Christo, died at age 84 on May 31, 2020. His death came 11 years after the passing of his wife, Jeanne-Claude. Known as artists under a singular name, ‘Christo and Jeanne-Claude,’ they worked as one to create their eye-grabbing, large-scale site-specific installations.
Christo in front of his environmental installation “Corridor Store Front.”
To commemorate Christo is to ponder an eccentric designer of architectural clothing. His projects with Jeanne-Claude, called wrappings, masterfully dressed buildings and monuments in an act that was both a makeover and a demolition. Although his most recent works made use of colored barrels, curtains, archways, and island extensions, his most iconic pieces deployed vast swaths of sheeting made from plastics and fabrics. The sheets, held up by miles of thick, prickly-strung rope, billowed in cascades and met at the cinches.
In 1968 LIFE staffer Carlo Bavagnolicaptured Christo gracefully constructing his first large-scale wrapping project, and Bavagnoli also shot two other installations by Christo and Jeanne-Claude that same year. These photos capture Christo’s skill at highlighting both the physical and bureaucratic structures that surround public architecture.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s wrappings challenged the visual presence of public architecture by, as Art News put it in their tribute to the late artist, “deconstructing and reconstructing the way we think about those structures.” In effect, their sheets covered fine architectural details but highlighted building structure. Sharp juts of corners and smooth curves of domes became accentuated, while a new void of color and texture called on viewers’ memories to fill in the details of a building that was simultaneously on display but held hostage.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude bunched up plastic sheeting while constructing “5,600 Cubic Meter Package,” for Documenta IV in 1968.
The artwork was more than the finished product. Every step and challenge of a wrapping constituted the piece. Christo and Jeanne-Claude pushed back against the wills of city officials, insurers, and engineers to gain permissions. Exploring the restraints of these civil systems was part of the work. In 1972 Christo told the New York Times:
“For me esthetics is everything involved in the process – the workers, the politics, the negotiations, the construction difficulty, the dealings with hundreds of people… The whole process becomes an esthetic – that’s what I’m interested in, discovering the process. I put myself in dialogue with other people.”
That process prevented the two from seeing through large-scale wrappings early in their careers. But in 1968, the Kunsthalle in Bern, Switzerland, became the site for their first large-scale wrapping. Wrapped Kunsthalle pushed their nearly decade-old proposals into reality, at last at their imagined scale.
The museum was a running start. During 1968, Christo and Jeanne-Claude embarked on five major projects that involved over 50,000 square feet of sheeting, and over 4 miles of rope. Bavagnoli shot three of these installations.
Wrapped Kunsthalle: Bern, Switzerland
Wrapped Kunsthalle was part of an international group show for the Kunsthalle museum’s 50th anniversary. A dozen artists participated, by presenting a variety of environmental works. Instead of showing something inside the halls, Christo and Jeanne-Claude cloaked the museum in 26,156 square feet of reinforced polyethylene. Christo said of the exhibition, “We took the environments by eleven other artists and wrapped them. We had our whole environment inside.”
Christo stood on top of the Swiss art museum, Kunsthalle, fastening rope and plastic sheeting around a pillar for his installation “Wrapped Kunsthalle,” 1968.
Visitors moved through a slit of plastic sheeting from Christo’s “Wrapped Kunsthalle” to enter the Kunsthalle Swiss art museum. The museum was covered all but for one opening for visitors to move in and out, 1968.
It took six days to wrap the museum, with help from an 11-person team. It was both an installation feat, and a bureaucratic one. Insurance companies refused to protect the museum while it was wrapped. In lieu of insurance, six security guards were hired to stand watch for potential fire and vandalism. The measure was so costly that the building was unwrapped after a week.
A panorama view of Christo’s “Wrapped Kunsthalle,” the Swiss art museum covered in plastic sheeting for an art show celebrating the museum’s 50th anniversary in 1968.
In July 1968, while Christo was working on Wrapped Kunsthalle, Jeanne-Claude was in the town of Spoleto, Italy. The two had proposed wrapping the Spoleto Opera House for the Festival of Two Worlds, but they were denied due to fire laws. Instead, they wrapped a medieval tower landmark and a baroque fountain at the Spoleto marketplace.
With Christo in Bern and Jeanne-Claude in Spoleto, neither was able to see the other’s completed wrapping. But later in the summer, the two reunited and completed 5,600 Cubic Meter Package.
A medieval tower on the outskirts of Spoleto, Italy was wrapped for the “Festival of Two Worlds,” 1968.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude completed 5,600 Cubic Meter Package as part of the contemporary art exhibition, Documenta IV in 1968. The installation was the largest ever inflated structure without a skeleton.
Its construction involved the two tallest cranes Europe had to offer, plus professional riggers, heat sealed fabric and a 3.5-ton steel cradle as a support base. Christo and Jeanne-Claude had a chief engineer, Dimiter Zagoroff, who created the base and helped coordinate the package’s inflation. The result was a striking display of collaboration and engineering work, the sort of which would continue through the rest of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s lifetime of installation.
Christo and his head engineer, Dimiter Zagoroff, discussed the construction of the metal support base for “5,600 Cubic Meter Package,” 1968.