Christo's name sounds lonely without Jeanne-Claude's, and I find it difficult to write only about the first one, at this hour of farewell, after his death last May 31st in New York.
I remember images of the meetings in Chile, the walks in Valparaiso, the visit to Pablo Neruda's house in Isla Negra, the party at sculptor Sergio Castillo and Silvia Westermann's house, the meetings in New York and the last time I met Christo, in Rome, in 2016. He embraced me with affection at the end of his press conference at the MAXXI museum where he had presented his latest project, The Floating Piers, on Lake d’Iseo in northern Italy, and thanks to which Christo - and the people - were able to walk on the water.
Jeanne-Claude left earlier, in 2009, in the same city where they came to live in 1964. Their works were always signed by both of them, the result of a meditated conceptual work, fine, careful in every detail, thought and elaborated together with an aesthetic and ecological look in their materials.
But of course, it was Christo who then took the pencil and produced those paintings that announced the work to be executed. He traced depths, projections, perspectives and falls that invited one to dream. Their sales allowed them to carry out 23 great works in public spaces during more than 50 years, without sponsorship from companies or governments.
They were artists in the purest sense of the word, they did not seek money, nor did they pretend that their works would last over time. They were ephemeral, born to last 15 days or more, but they were seen and visited by millions of people.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were born on the same date, June 13, 1935. Him, in Bulgaria, to German ancestors, and her in Casablanca, Morocco, where her father, a French officer, performed colonial functions. They met in Paris in 1958 and were married the following year. They never separated again; they were life partners. According to his biography, Christo inherited a considerable fortune in Germany in the 1970s, which he donated to charitable organizations.
I was lucky enough to meet them in 1998, when they were already known worldwide, through their lawyer Scott Hodes, in Chicago, where I represented Chile as Consul.
It did not take me long to convince them to come to the country. It was the year 1999, and I dreamed that Christo and Jeanne-Claude would wrap La Moneda in 2000. I explained to them that it would be symbolic, that a new millennium and government would begin; that we had had a horrendous dictatorship and that an action of art like the ones they were creating would be a purification for all the atrocities experienced in the country. I thought my arguments would be convincing, but Jeanne-Claude told me: "We never repeat a type of intervention. We've already wrapped one government building in Berlin, the Reichstag, we'll never do another." Nothing to do, but I was intrigued as to whether they would be enthusiastic about a project in Chile.
I returned to Santiago and we kept in touch via fax, as they liked to communicate. With the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the director of the Goethe-Institut Dieter Strauss, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts Milan Ivelic, and the Catholic University, we managed to put together a program of lectures for them. Both were demanding people, clearly stating what they wanted and what they didn't want. It had not been easy for me to get the Ministry of Foreign Affairs excited and to pay for two plane tickets. They were given to me in economy class, naturally. When I communicated the good news, Jeanne-Claude thanked me and told me right away that it would be for another time, since they traveled only in first class and always stayed in 5-star hotels. LAN Chile, at the time, gave me the upgrade, and I don't remember how we financed the stay anymore.
Once in Santiago, Christo explained to me the work they wanted to develop: to cover the largest open pit copper mine in the world, Chuquicamata in the Atacama Desert. They explained to me that they knew it would not be easy, they told me that the authorization to wrap the Reichstag took 26 years, The Gates, installed in New York's Central Park, 25, and the Pont Neuf in Paris, 9. I managed to get an appointment with the chairman of Codelco, the state company that manages the mine. I explained to him who the artists were and what they wanted. He looked at me as if I came from another planet and after some courtesy phrases, I never got an answer.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude needed government permits to intervene in public spaces. It was never easy for them, they repeated. They kept a record of the years they had had to wait for the approval of each of their works. The millions of dollars that the projects cost were financed by the sale of the designs and the merchandising they originated.
Christo's story is well known. He studied Art in Sofia, and at the age of 22 he managed to escape from Prague to France. He was very clear about what real socialism meant. The freedom to live, each in his/her own way, to dress, to travel and above all to create, became the main reason for his life. He had never and would never return to his native country, he pointed out to me in a conversation in Santiago.
In Chile, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's visit went virtually unnoticed. With the exception of people who knew, understood and valued their work, such as Sergio Castillo, National Art Prize winner, and his wife, the curator and current president of the board of the Chilean Academy of Fine Arts, Silvia Westermann. Christo and Jeanne-Claude talked, told anecdotes and discussed their plans at a reception in their honor that Silvia and Sergio organized in their apartment at Parque Forestal where they shared with artists, collectors, politicians and people from the cultural world.
Christo approved complacently of practically everything his wife proposed. They received invitations to visit galleries in Santiago, which they shunned, but at the insistence of one, they accepted. Jeanne-Claude warned me: "If I tell you that I must telephone my aunt, it is because we must leave quickly". And that's how it was, we didn't stay 10 minutes before we left.
We were in Isla Negra, visiting Neruda's house. Christo didn't have any sympathy for communists, but he did admire his poetry. At the exit we walked along following the long wooden fence full of graffiti that we were translating for them. At one point Christo stopped, took out a red pencil that he always carried and wrote: "Christo loves Jeanne-Claude".
Personally, the visit to Chile of these artists meant that I met my wife, Anke Kessler, due to the immediate involvement of Dieter Strauss, the director of the Goethe-Institut in Chile, whose assistant she was. Christo and Jeanne-Claude, with whom we maintained a long-distance friendship, were among the first to know about the birth of our son, Federico. Later, we saw them a couple of times in New York where we were invited to their home and studio in Soho, an old building of 3 or 4 floors which had been a powder keg during the Civil War, as they told us.
Valparaíso, on a sunny day, is a splendid city to walk through its streets, and especially with sensitive people who absorb details, stop to observe a cornice or simply immerse their gaze in the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. They loved the city. I liked the simplicity of the clothing, Jeanne-Claude's red hair, the jeans, military jacket and Christo's long hair, the frugality of their meals and the artist's vision of the world and life. To hear them talk about their only son, Cyril, a poet, who was looking for his path. The patience to wait years for the authorization of a work and the rush to carry it out, knowing that they would vanish after two weeks, that all the material would be recycled, and nature would return to its original form. In their portfolio there were more than forty projects that were never carried out, among them, probably, the one in Chuquicamata.
The last night before their return to New York, the artists were invited to a beautiful dinner in her honor at the home of gallery owner Patricia Ready. It was when summer was coming to an end and there was a perfect temperature in the gardens under the moon, where they could share and listen to people from our cultural world.
On March 19, 1999 they took the flight back to New York. I am aware of the date because at the airport bar where we sat and waited, I carried a newspaper with me. At one point Christo asked me for it, took out his pencil and drew a beautiful red tree with his signature, which we still have in our home.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude have left this world across which they travelled a great part of the 20th century with their art, without trying to impose anything or create a school, just to convey an aesthetic experience, simple, beautiful, harmonic, destined to disappear. In one of his last interviews with a Spanish newspaper, Christo pointed out that at 83 years he had no time for retrospectives, he was not interested, that this was to be left for when he was no longer there. He was preparing to wrap the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 2021, and said that this time, he had been given permission to do so immediately. Everything that was left in the retina of millions of people who observed their interventions in constructions and in nature, can be recreated through the exhibitions that will surely be inaugurated in the future.
For Anke and me, the wonderful memory remains that it was them who allowed our love to be born.