PARIS — At the heart of Christo and Jeanne-Claude – Paris!, on view at the Centre Pompidou, is a film documenting the couple’s wrapping of the Pont Neuf in 1985. During one of many public forums held in advance of the event, a man questions its significance, asking “What is it worth if it’s only temporary, if nothing remains?” Responding with equal parts charm and conviction, Christo counters that the project is permanent, since “an experience can never be taken away.” And, as this exhibition illustrates, in fact, a great deal is left behind.
Focusing on Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s tenure in Paris, the show is organized into three chapters: 1958–1964, 1975–1985, and the present. These periods correspond to Christo’s arrival in Paris and first works in studio and in situ: the Pont Neuf project and the proposed wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe (originally scheduled for 2020 but since postponed to autumn 2021). Taken together, one quickly realizes that the couple’s reputation as “ephemeral architects” or “temporary monument” makers is incomplete, if not altogether incorrect. Rather, each artwork, whether witnessed by a broad public or never exhibited beyond the studio, was preceded by extensive study, design, negotiation, and subsequently survived by material residue and documentation.
The first section firmly grounds viewers in Christo’s personal language of barrels, packages, and vitrines. Moving from paint cans arranged as columns to a life-size photo reproduction of the “Iron Curtain” on rue Visconti (1962), the later transposition to a monumental scale then seems natural. This sentiment is echoed by the “Craters” series, paintings that recall Dubuffet and Pollock in their exploration of surface tactility yet also read as aerial views of volcanic landscapes from afar. The medicine cabinets and storefronts provide a further link in this process of seeing anew; although more clearly architectural, they merely use the (built) environment as frame or reference, playing on and within the limits of that space rather than elevating the container to a work of art.
Instead, the packages — or packaging (empaquetage) — most fruitfully led to the celebrated site-specific works. Treating plastic, cotton, burlap or wax paper with added paint, sand, and rope, the earliest experiments contain both the grime and luster of a premature relic. A mummified carcass hangs like a prosciutto hock across from a patinated Oxford shirt rivaling that of the Venus de Milo. Select packages are placed on pedestals or framed as if to affirm that they are Art, while others poke fun (is it a toy horse or the Trojan Horse?) or simultaneously confound and inspire (is that a typewriter or a military bunker?). This staged assembly charts the evolution from wrapped paintings to objects and highlights the embrasure of polyethylene as a turning point in the artist’s process. More akin to fabric than plastic, this material concurrently allowed for heightened concealment due to its opacity and deeper revelation as a result of its sensual, close draping.
Situating these early works in the heady context of 1960s Paris, one might imagine parallels between the tin cans and Arman’s accumulations, the vitrines and Yves Klein’s “Le Vide” (1958), or the framed packages and Daniel Spoerri’s trap paintings. Yet both Christo and the curators emphasize that he was not part of the Nouveau Réalisme movement, despite the fact that its figurehead, Pierre Restany, considered him to be. It was perhaps in reaction to this unwanted association that Christo shunned the movement’s fascination with commodity culture to finance projects solely by his own means, thereby denying outside influence or any potential commercial overlord. Given their ambitious scale — both physical and financial — this proved no small feat. However, what Christo most ardently pursued has no price: jolting surprise into the mundane and seeming predictability of daily life to engender debate and human encounter.
In this sense, his 1964 wrapping of the Trocadero is most prescient in demonstrating his desire for public engagement. An accompanying film shows a lithe man arrive on the scene looking the part of a traveling salesman, except from his suitcase he spontaneously draws forth a sheer fabric, enrobes a statue, and departs — leaving puzzled onlookers in his wake. Preparing to wrap the Pont Neuf some twenty years later, Christo argued he was seeking to create a new consciousness; unlike Turner or the Impressionists who had previously represented the bridge, Christo wanted the bridge itself to be viewed as a work of art.
Multiple rooms of drawings, studies, permits, and models evidence how he hoped to make that possible. In collages combining illustration and fabric, a tangible evocation extends beyond the picture plane, complemented by nearby cables and metal fixtures to grant a sense of scale and the requisite labor. Photographs document the billowing champagne fabric engaging in endless reflective play against the water and sunlight, while a video shows the choreographed ballet of tube-socked rock climbers flitting about to anchor the wrapping in place. This multimedia archive challenges the work’s categorization: Is it land art, installation, performance? And where and when does it end, once the materials are recycled and the site returned to its previous state?
Christo and Jeanne-Claude – Paris! is like a love story, full of anticipation, curiosity, frustration, and humor. Paris was Christo’s haven after escaping Bulgaria, where he realized his first public intervention and met his future partner. It is where he victoriously transformed the Pont Neuf and planned to finally realize a dream he’d had since 1962 — to wrap the Arc de Triomphe. To have succeeded would have been a homecoming of both personal and professional significance. That it will now occur without either Christo or Jeanne-Claude present is a testament to their role as artists of temporary permanence, hors pair.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude – Paris! continues at the Pompidou Center (Place Georges-Pompidou, Paris, France) through October 19, with visitors admitted with advance online registration. The exhibition was curated by Sophie Duplaix.