Artist to Know: Christo

Liz Catalano
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Rago to Offer Early Sketch From Late Installation Artist

The time between idea conception and project execution was typically on the scale of decades for Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Active since the 1960s, the artist duo is today remembered for their massive yet fleeting fabric installations. To pay for these multimillion-dollar projects, they resolutely refused licensing deals, grants, and sponsorships. Instead, every endeavor, from The Gates to Wrapped Reichstag, was funded through the sale of preparatory sketches and early drawings.

Following their spirit of artistic freedom, one of Christo’s early sketches from 1967 will come to auction in Rago’s upcoming sale of post-war and contemporary art. This live auction will be held on June 23, 2020, at 11:00 AM EDT. Learn more about Christo and Jeanne-Claude before the bidding begins.

Christo with his installation on Serpentine Lake in London, England. Image from Serpentine Galleries.
Christo with his installation on Serpentine Lake in London, England. Image from Serpentine Galleries.

Born in a small Bulgarian town, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff’s work was influenced by his experiences as a displaced person following World War II. He settled in Paris after fleeing the Hungarian Revolution, paying his bills with street paintings. It was during this period that he became known by his first name and first met his future life partner, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon. The couple discovered that they were born within hours of each other on the same day and fell in love quickly. Christo and Jeanne-Claude began working together formally in the 1960s. 

In their early years, Christo and Jeanne-Claude collaborated on small-scale projects that were within their shoestring budget. Christo’s sketches showed oil barrels, everyday objects, and packages wrapped in fabric. These works laid the groundwork for their later use of colorful and temporary fabrics. “For me, esthetics is everything involved in the process…” Christo said in a 1972 interview with The New York Times. “The whole process becomes an esthetic — that’s what I’m interested in, discovering the process. I put myself in dialogue with other people.” 

The pair maintained their commitment to both ephemeral beauty and social responsibility throughout their careers. They continued to refuse outside funding for their projects, which got progressively larger and more dramatic during the 1970s. Citing their belief that gifts and donations would compromise the integrity of their art, Christo and Jeanne-Claude paid for their art out-of-pocket. Each endeavor was funded by a limited-time corporation that exclusively sold Christo’s project drawings.

Christo, Wedding Dress, 1967. Image from Rago.
Christo, Wedding Dress, 1967. Image from Rago.

An example of these fundraising sketches will come to auction with Rago a few weeks after Christo’s death in late May, 2020. This 1967 piece, titled Wedding Dress, measures almost two feet high and 18 inches wide. It was created while Christo and Jeanne-Claude were wrapping objects, statues, and women in pieces of fabric as a way to “challeng[e] the viewer to reappraise the objects beneath and the space in which it exists.” A model is shown dressed in shorts and a halter top. Ropes link her to a boulder-shaped bundle of satin fabric. Bidding for this sketch will begin at USD 14,000 against a presale estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. 

Rough early sketches have long provided for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work and were originally sold individually to galleries and collectors. This funding mechanism began with the Valley Curtain project, where a large piece of orange fabric was stretched between two mountains in Colorado. Unfortunately, the installation only survived the high winds for 28 hours. Sketches for Valley Curtain remain popular among collectors: a 1971 planning sketch sold for $37,485 at Bukowski’s in 2013, 23% above the high estimate.

Christo’s older sketches remain popular, though designs for the larger and more public works reach the highest prices. In late 2019, a post-project sketch of The Pont Neuf Wrapped went under the hammer at Christie’s, reaching a final price of $362,500.

Christo, L’Arc de Triomphe (Project for Paris), 2018. Image from Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
Christo, L’Arc de Triomphe (Project for Paris), 2018. Image from Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009, and for the next ten years, Christo carried out the projects they had been planning together for decades. The Floating Piers, first conceptualized in 1970, was completed in 2016 on Italy’s Lake Iseo. Their longest-running project— the wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris— will be completed posthumously in September of 2021. Though delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped is set for completion almost 60 years after the artists designed it. This installation, like all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works, will only last for a few days before being taken down and recycled. 

“Do you know that I don’t have any artworks that exist?” Christo once asked. “I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain.”

Christo’s Wedding Dress sketch will appear at auction on June 23, 2020 at 11:00 AM EDT, alongside works from Deborah Butterfield, Sam Francis, and Keith Haring. For more information on the auction and to place a bid, visit Bidsquare.

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