It was in the very early 1960s that Charles Wilp, a lively Dusseldorf-based arts entrepreneur, brought Christo and Jeanne-Claude to my studio in the Pheasantry on London’s Kings Road. Christo had an artwork in mind. He had decided to wrap a woman. Wilp, perhaps because he knew that my friend and neighbor was the Vogue photographer Claude Virgin, decided that I might be able to provide a willing participant.
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It so happened and—I was then a working photogapher—I recorded the event. My memory is that there were some breath-control difficulties with the translucent wrapping of the naked girl so that when she emerged she must have lost a pound or two of moisture and was certainly minus her brilliant Vidal Sassoon cut. But a work of art had been created. As had an enduring friendship.
Jeanne-Claude, who died last week at 74, was born Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon. She was the daughter of a French general and behaved as if she would have you thrown into the guardhouse if you dared suggest she was extremely pretty. Which she was.
Christo was born Christo Javacheff. Half Czech and half Bulgarian, he looked like a more slavic Antony Perkins. He had studied art in Sofia, learning superlative manual skills. He managed to get to Prague, then Paris, where he met Jeanne-Claude. They found that they were both were born on June 13, 1935. He painted her, as fluently as Sargent or Boldini might have, then wrapped the painting, and tied up the package. This was a crossing-of-the-Rubicon moment.
Their tiny place on an islet in the Seine was filled with Christo’s wrapped brown paper parcels and bottles and paint cans, tied up in lightly touched-up canvas; enigmatic works, and hugely appealing, Christo and Jeanne-Claude would keep some of these pieces around—as an umbilical link to that formative questing period—always.
We saw each other from time to time over the years. Once in London, I took them to visit my mother, who, like many who had been radical in their youth, was highly skeptical of Contemporary art. She scolded Christo for his wrapping nonsense. He took this with his imperturbable good humor. It was about then that I urged the critic Robert Hughes to check out Christo, who had by then moved on to wrapping buildings and landscapes.
Hughes just gave me that “You daft pom” look. Some years later, though, he did concede that, compared to fresh art horrors coming to his attention, “Christo is Tintoretto.”
• Art Beast: The Best of Art, Photography, and DesignJeanne-Claude and Christo moved to Manhattan in 1964, and into a wholly illegal loft-space on Howard Street, North of Canal, and just off Lower Broadway. It was technically a photo studio and a red light had been set up so that any signs of habitation could be swiftly swept out of sight if the authorities ever came to call.
It wasn’t easy for them in the beginning. New York artists back then could be chauvinist, suspicious of Euros, particularly of Euros who had built a reputation in the former art capital, Paris. In London, he had an excellent dealer in Annely Juda. But in New York, Christo and Jeanne-Claude—with the general’s daughter being very much the strategist—anticipated what was to happen with Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami almost half a century later by managing their own career.
Their life in Manhattan in those early years was like a re-enactment of a vanished time, that of the enchanted, embattled, minuscule avant garde in Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years, Jeanne-Claude gave terrific dinners. There was a long narrow table, at which were seated anything upwards from eight to many more, including artists like Roy Lichtenstein, critics like David Bourdon, and the supportive collectors who would help nudge their extraordinary multi-million dollar projects into the real world, all talking and shoveling up Jeanne-Claude’s French country cooking. So far as I can tell, the engorged, well-financed art world of today offers few parallels.
Of recent years we would meet upstairs in Howard Street, in a room that was Minimalist, and filled with glowing oatmeal light. We would then go across the road to the Culinary Institute, where cooks-in-the-making would strut their stuff. The talk would often be of having a forthcoming project that wasn’t embattled—as the Gates was—with Christo and Jeanne-Claude finishing or contradicting each other’s sentences, like an established vaudeville act, or like a team. Which they were.
They first worked on a piece together, a short-lived installation on the Cologne docks, in 1961. This, it should be pointed out, was way before such other haute art world pairings as those of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen and Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude kept their collaboration on major installation works quiet for many years, not wishing to confuse an easily confused art market. That secrecy had long been abandoned. Indeed I remember discussing a current project—covering the Arkansas River—a few months ago at a dinner at the Pink Pony on New York’s Ludlow Street. The thought that anything could actually get between Jeanne-Claude and her goal seemed impossible. It still does.
Anthony Haden-Guest is the news editor of Charles Saatchi’s online magazine.