Jeanne-Claude Was Muse and Collaborator


Jeanne-Claude, the artist who collaborated with her partner Christo on monumental installation projects like “The Gates” in New York and “The Wrapped Reichstag” in Berlin, passed away Wednesday at a hospital in New York from complications of a brain aneurysm. She was 74.

Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon was born in Casablanca on June 13, 1935 — the same day, it would turn out, as her future husband, Christo. She was educated in Switzerland and France, studying Latin and philosophy, and moved to Paris in 1957, when her father became head of the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique. She met Christo in 1958 and together they produced his first one-man show in June 1961, which consisted primarily of a tarpaulin slung over a stack of oil drums on a German wharf. ‘Dockside Packages’ would prefigure a lifetime preoccupation with fabric and was the first in a series of colossal wrappings that would make them famous. Even though the couple did not publicly acknowledge Jeanne-Claude’s role in their installations until 1994, she’d always been a partner in the creation of their work.

Jeanne-Claude had dyed fire-red hair, a dulcet voice and striking magnanimity in the face of detractors. At press conferences, she often interrupted her husband to gently chide their critics or expand upon some aspect of their work. Together, they helped move contemporary exhibitions from the interiors of cultural institutions to the outdoors.

Christo and Jeanne Claude's
[Watch a slide show of moments from Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s career together.]”:

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s installations were never discreet and often so massive that they provoked accusations of profligacy or narcissism. In Northern California in the early ’70s, residents of Sonoma and Marin Counties objected strenuously to the couple’s plan to rig an “18-foot-high, 24-mile-long fence of nylon fabric”: More recently, their “plan to cover the Arkansas River”: with fabric upset some who feared the invasion of hundreds of thousands of visitors, even spawning an opposition group called “Rags Over the Arkansas River.”

Nonetheless, by virtue of their unique method of fundraising, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were relatively immune to naysayers. In a recent interview with Art Beat, Jeanne-Claude said that their work existed “without justification, like a poem.”

“The passing of Jeanne-Claude must be especially cruel for Christo, who was so very close both personally and as a team,” Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said in an email. De Montebello was instrumental in the implementation of “The Gates” in Central Park. “The two together were among the most inventive and marking artists of the last 40 years, and one can only hope that Christo will find the strength to continue their work. She remains his muse,” he said.

It’s unclear how Jeanne-Claude’s death will affect their two works in progress (“Over the River” in southern Colorado and the Mastaba in the United Arab Emirates), but in a statement on their Web site, Christo affirmed that he “is committed to honor the promise they made to each other many years ago,” and that “the art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude will continue.”

Editor’s Note: Art Beat talked to Jeanne-Claude and Christo this summer in a two-part series on a major installation project under development in Colorado.

Click here for Part 1.
Click here for Part 2.