Christo Vladimiroff Javacheff (born 1935) is a Bulgarian-born sculptor who gained world-wide fame for his unique large-scale environmental artworks such as Running Fence and Valley Curtain.
Christo Vladimiroff Javacheff, who is known professionally only by his first name, was born on June 13, 1935, in Gabrovo, a small town in the Balkan Mountains of Bulgaria. Bulgaria was invaded by the Nazis during his early childhood, and later occupied by the Soviets at the end of World War II when Christo was about ten-years-old. He was the second of three sons born to Ivan Javacheff, a chemist and prominent businessman and industrialist, and Tzveta (Dimitrova) Javacheff, a political activist. His family was prominent in Bulgarian artistic circles in the 1950s and young Christo studied at the Fine Arts Academy in Bulgaria's capital city, Sofia. There the curriculum followed the tenets of Soviet Social Realism and Christo learned to paint in the strict realistic styles advanced by the Soviet government. As a member of the Communist Youths he participated in art propaganda projects while in school. In 1956, he went to Prague, Czechoslovakia to study theater design, and there he saw for the first time modern paintings by Matisse, Miro, Klee, and Kandinsky which were relegated to basements and storerooms.
When the Hungarian uprising of 1956 broke out, Christo managed to defect to Austria. He studied art briefly in Vienna, Austria, and then, after a short stay in Switzerland, moved to Paris in 1958.
Once in Paris, Christo supported himself by painting and met a group of artists who used everyday objects and events as the subjects of their work. The group included Arman, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, and Yves Klein. Roughly corresponding to American and British Pop Art, they gathered around the critic Pierre Restany and were identified as "Nouvelle Realism" (New Realism). In this milieu Christo made the first wrapped sculptures that became his hallmark. Christo also met his future wife and business and artistic partner, Jeanne-Claude Guillebon, in Paris. Guillebon was the daughter of a noted French World War II general and was born on the same day as Christo. She would play the role of organizer and administrator of their corporation, which controls the finances of these ventures. On many of the projects, Guillebon is also enrolled as a photographer.
Christo began wrapping objects for display purposes soon after his arrival in Paris. He started with small items, like beer cans and wine bottles, then moved on to bicycles, road signs, and cars. He also wrapped huge piles of crates along a harbor in Cologne, Germany, and covered shop windows and corridors of shops. His first major foray was his Iron Curtain—Wall of Oil Barrels, which he displayed in Paris in 1962. The origin of this approach is unclear; he told one writer that it may have developed when he and other art students in Sofia were "drafted" to decorate a railway embankment at the local train station. Decorating an actual location with common materials appealed to him.
In 1964 Christo moved to New York where he continued to make what he called "temporary monuments," and at one point he wrapped live female models. His sculpture often passed as ordinary objects walking a line between art and life. His projects began to grow in size, and after several unsuccessful attempts he erected a 280-foot sausage-like column filled with air at the international exhibition Documenta in 1968, the first of his monumental environmental sculptures. He followed that success by wrapping a medieval tower in Spoleto, Italy and the city hall of Bern, Switzerland. In 1969, he wrapped the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and revealed his Wrapped Coast, which entailed wrapping one mile of Australian coastline near Sydney. The Valley Curtain, built in the Grand Hogback Mountain Range near Aspen, Colorado in 1972, spanned a distance of 1,250 feet from one side of Rifle Gap, a narrow valley, to the other with 200,000 square feet of bright orange nylon fabric. Running Fence, built in 1976 of two million square feet of a white fabric "fence," ran across 24 miles of California landscape from Sonoma and Marin Counties into the Pacific Ocean. These large projects were known as "Christos" and brought an ever increasing amount of both scorn and praise to Christo.
In the spring of 1980, he completed Surrounded Islands in Biscayne Bay near Miami, Florida, by encircling eleven man-made islands with 200-foot-wide sheets of flamingo pink polypropylene fabric. Christo called this project his version of Monet's water lilies, in reference to Claude Monet's large cycle of paintings of water lilies, often considered the quintessential Impressionist painting. Christo's project was made with the help of 430 assistants, cost $3.4 million, and lasted two weeks. To realize Surrounded Islands the artist had to file numerous permits and go through seven public hearings. Much of the initial local opposition to it turned to support by its conclusion. In 1985, Christo unveiled his Pont Neuf Wrapped. He wrapped the Pont Neuf bridge, the oldest bridge in Paris, and one of the most famous crossings of the Seine River.
He followed this achievement with his 1991 "Christo," The Umbrellas, Joint Project for Japan and USA. This project would not be as successful as his previous ones had been. The project consisted of a line of thousands of yellow and blue umbrellas arrayed in a wandering line along the coasts of Japan and California. After years of preparation and planning, environmental studies, wind tests, and negotiations, a line of umbrellas stretching for about 12 miles in Japan and 16 in California was unfurled on the same day in October. Unfortunately, a gust of wind lifted one of the large umbrellas out of its metal mooring, killing one person and injuring three more. Christo immediately ordered the closing of the umbrellas. Then, in the course of dismantling one of the umbrellas, a Japanese worker was electrocuted as he lifted the metal poles onto a truck near a high-power electric line.
These deaths made it increasingly difficult for Christo to gain permission for his projects and made it more difficult for Christo to gain the support of insurance companies and other organizations. Nonetheless, some progress was made on what Christo called "the project that is more important to me than all of the others put together." This "Christo" was called Wrapped Reichstag, Project for Berlin and had been in Christo's mind for nearly 20 years. He wrapped the Reichstag, the center of Germany's government and an important and symbolic monument in that nation's history. The project had faced rigid opposition for many years, but in 1993 the president of the German parliament announced that she would support the wrapping. It took another year, but in February of 1994, a parliamentary vote of 292 to 223 okayed Christo's wrapping of the Reichstag.
The New York Times Holland Cotter wrote that, for Christo, the Reichstag "is both a monument to democracy and a symbol of the possibility of renewed relationships between Eastern and Western Europe. In that light, his project can be viewed as the bandaging of old wounds." In June of 1995, Christo, his wife, and over 100 mountain climbers and assistants wrapped the Reichstag in thousands of yards of silver fabric. When the wrapping came off after nearly two weeks, the German government went ahead with plans to remodel the building so as to house the newly-unified German parliament.
In 1996, Christo traveled back to Colorado for his Over the River, Project for Western USA. This involved wrapping roughly five miles of the Arkansas River near Canon City, Colorado with a translucent fabric.
Christo's latest idea involves lining all the paths in New York City's Central Park with rectangular steel gates that would hold saffron-colored banners. The project has drawn fire from many in New York and is still under consideration.
The environmental projects of Christo are temporary events that require hundreds of assistants, cost large sums of money, and are the result of years of complicated negotiations between government officials, financial backers, environmentalists, and the public-at-large. The artist considered these efforts as part of artwork. No public or corporate funds are used for any "Christo," and all funds were raised through the sales of his drawings and prints. His work always generated controversy which he welcomed claiming that "the worst thing that can happen to any artist is that no one cares about his work."
Like many contemporary artists Christo wanted to defy convention and demanded that old definitions and expectations of art be expanded. He challenged the idea that sculpture is a permanent object and circumvented the world of art galleries and museums by placing his art in the world-at-large. While the projects cost millions of dollars they cannot be bought, sold, or owned. William Rubin, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, described Christo as "an artist functioning more in the realm of events than in that of painting and sculpture," where the emphasis has been on the end product and not on the process. As sculpture, his work is environmental, built to relate to a specific site and to be part of it. None of his projects can be moved. In the process of making the work Christo, along with hundreds of collaborators, must be a diplomat, publicist, fund-raiser, and politician as well as form-giver. This complex role goes against the modern myth of the artist as a lone individual.
In general Christo's projects get more and more ambitious and the planning stages become very complicated, especially in relationship to the amount of time that the artwork lasts. Like the artist Judy Chicago, he had a wide following outside of art circles, and he is often criticized by art critics for being a "megalomaniac" and for relying too much on the single theme of envelopment. Christo says of this, "For me, the real world involves everything: risk, danger, beauty, energy."
Christo (1972), with a text by critic David Bourdon, is a good summary of Christo's work up to the 1970s and contains many photographs of sculptures and projects that no longer exist. Christo, Complete Editions, 1964-1982 (1982), by Per Hovdenakk, is a more up-to-date listing of the graphic work which accompanied his large projects. Information about Christo's work is constantly being updated and often appears first in the general press. A thorough examination of the process of making Surrounded Islands can be found in an article in Art News (January 1984) entitled "Christo's Blossoms in the Bay," written by Lisbeth Nelson.
Information on Christo's project in Colorado can be found in the Denver Post, July 10, 1995; July 16, 1995; and November 16, 1996. Biographical information on Christo can be found in the May 23, 1997 issue of the Denver Post. Information on Christo's latest project in New York City can be found in the March 31, 1996 issue of the New York Times. □