Surprise Encounters: Christo!
When the Council on Foundations moved from New York in 1974, where 40% percent of the foundations were located, to Washington, DC, a lacuna prompted us to create gathering opportunities for grant makers. The Foundation Luncheon group was formed for monthly luncheons where we heard from such folks as Nelson Rockefeller and Ralph Nader, both big draws.
When it was my turn to invite a speaker, I recruited and introduced Philip Morrison, a distinguished theoretical physicist from MIT who was of international stature and, reputedly, a dynamic speaker. Morrison was a member of the Manhattan Project who went on to become a vocal critic of the nuclear arms race. He had been a reviewer of science books for Scientific American for years.
Some 150 of us gathered in May 1975 on the lawn at Rockefeller University to hear what he had to say about where philanthropy might go in the next twenty-five years. Well, this consummate man of science spoke only of the arts.
Morrison began by talking about the renowned glassmaking in Murano, Italy, across from Venice, as early as the eighth century and moved swiftly on to our own day. The last part of his remarks was devoted entirely to Christo, a young artist who worked out-of-doors who had not done too much up to that time. Only four of his twenty- two projects—Corridor Storefronts in Kassel, 1968; Wrapped Coast, Sydney, 1969; Valley Curtain, a 400-meter cloth stretched across Rifle Gap, Colorado, in 1971, and Running Fence, 1973, in California— were done. Still to come, too, were the wrapping of Pont Neuf bridge in Paris (1984) and the Reichstag building in Berlin (1995), which Hella’s classmates later described as a jubilant day for Berliners.
So, in the mid-1980s when we were invited to hear Christo speak at the School of Visual Arts in Summit, New Jersey, and have dinner with him and his partner, Jeanne- Claude, afterward, the event took on added meaning. In the auditorium, Christo was introduced before a large crowd, but before he could speak a loud voice interrupted him: “Christo! Don’t talk without the slides. Talk about something other than the projects!”
After this eruption, Jeanne-Claude ran to fetch the slides.
The executive director said to me, “They didn’t request a slide projector.”
I said, “Get one, pronto.”
Fifteen minutes later, Christo told their story with a series of strong slides showing exactly what he meant. It is interesting and not implausible to reflect on the fact that Christo and Jeanne-Claude were born on the same day the same year —June 13, 1935—he in Bulgaria, she in Morocco. They both were Gemini. It is as though there were four of them coming at you all at once.
They financed their projects by selling the detailed drawings that seem architectural in nature.
In 2002, we had a week devoted to the visual arts at Chautauqua. When I called, Jeanne-Claude picked up the phone.
“How did you get this number?”
“You gave it to me,” I said.
I pitched for them to come to Chautauqua for a day, offered a decent honorarium, and Jeanne-Claude said they were working on a big project for Central Park, The Gates. Christo was working seventeen hours a day, she thirteen hours. But, she said, taking three days out would be good for them, and they would enjoy the drive up and back along the Finger Lakes. She accepted my invitation. But she called back three minutes later to say Christo said, “No!” The deadline was looming, so they had to decline.
Actually, the deadline was later pushed back a year to February 2005. Hella and I flew up from St. Petersburg to see The Gates and walk for hours with our family, with a break for lunch at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thanks to our daughter Catherine.
We were transported by the rippling orange banners—drawing attention to the beauty and singularity of Central Park—against a cobalt blue sky and snow shimmering all about.
Cynthia, our other daughter, took scores of photos of The Gates from many angles during their two-week run that February. She made a major work of art with thirty-six images—tight punchy verbal takeaways, with one panel in a natural color where orange predominates, one in blue, and one in black and white.
Christo once reflected on the nature of his large outdoor art by saying, “Do you know that I don’t have any artworks that exist? They all go away when they’re finished. Only the preparatory drawings and collages are left, giving my works an almost legendary character. I think it takes greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain.”
Philip Morrison was right—Christo and Jeanne-Claude were a phenomenon of surprising imagination and invention and execution that touches a fresh common chord of human aspiration.
Our family under one of 7,503 gates installed in Central Park in New York City by Christo and Jean-Claude, February, 2005.
Scott McVay was founding executive director of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He was the sixteenth president of the Chautauqua Institution. He is fascinated by the songs of nature, propelled by the six-octave humpback whale’s song, and the songs of humanity, driven by poetry of the planet throughout history and today.