Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, fabric and environmental artist, died on May 31 at age 84.
Born in 1933 in Bulgaria, he watched his country swing from royal dictatorship to Axis ally to Soviet state by the time he was 11. His father ran a fabric factory and his mother worked at a school of fine arts, which Christo would later attend. His early art involved wrapping mundane objects in fabric or paper. Later, he’d drape entire buildings.
When the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 upended the region, Christo fled the country by bribing a railway official and stowing aboard a train carrying medical supplies. He eventually landed in Paris.
While painting a portrait in 1958, he met his future wife, Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon. The two married in 1962, and Jeanne-Claude became an artist out of love for Christo. “If he had been a dentist, I would have become a dentist,” she once told art critic Calvin Tomkins. They moved to New York in 1964 and collaborated until Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009.
The couple’s first major politically charged work was Wall of Oil in 1962. They stacked 89 oil barrels across the Rue Visconti in Paris, obstructing traffic and depicting frustration with the Berlin Wall. Assembled without permission, the work stood for eight hours.
From there, Christo tackled larger projects: hanging a bright orange curtain across a mountain valley in Colorado, surrounding islands in Florida with princess-pink fabric, shrouding Berlin’s Reichstag building in silver cloth, and sending 7,503 orange gates marching through Central Park.
In 2018, Christo returned to his roots: barrels. He stacked 7,506 red, blue, and mauve barrels in a trapezoidal shape as tall as Egypt’s Sphinx and set them floating in The Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park for nearly 100 days. The rippling lake reflected the barrels, creating an image the artist called an abstract painting.
Like abstract art, Christo said, the interpretation was up to the viewer: “Any interpretation is legitimate, critical or positive. … All [interpretations] make you think. This is why we’re human; to think.” —Anna Johansen