Art for a Sheltered-in-Place World

At a time when at best it is just getting safe for most museums to admit live visitors, consider “The Gates,” the massive Christo-Jeanne-Claude installation in Central Park, in February 2005. There were 7,500 orange saffron arches along 27 miles of park pathways… room for at least 24,000 visitors at a time, six feet apart!

“The Gates” in Central Park in 2005. Photo: Max Hilaire

Christo Javachevff and his wife Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon were famous for large, ephemeral installations, which live on both in our minds and in curious ways. Many were among the largest artistic installations built since the age of the pharaohs.

“Their artwork made a huge impression on me at an early age,” says Fine Arts Chair Julia Jacquette. “Their installations got a lot of attention in the 1970s when I first became aware of contemporary art and artists. The proposals were playful and yet monumental, like the one to wrap the Sylvette sculpture by Picasso in the NYU faculty housing on Houston Street, or the actual wrapping of the arch in Washington Square.”

Most Christo-Jeanne-Claude projects followed that long and winding path to approval. “The Gates” was conceived in 1979, but took over a quarter-century to achieve.

Puts the months of COVID-19 isolation in perspective, doesn’t it? These times will pass.

“The Gates” in Central Park, 2005. Photo: Max Hilaire

From FIT’s academic perspective, think of the skills required:

  • Artistic genius. Check!
  • Facilities and exposition planning. Check!
  • Publicity and fundraising. Check!
  • Fabrication and sustainability. Check!

And of course, photography. Check again!

Photography Professor Max Hilaire, whose photos are shown here, said following the recent May 31 death of Christo “Two of the most monumental art installations I’ve greatly enjoyed are the ‘The Gates’ and the ‘Mastaba,’ in London, in July 2018.”

“The Gates” in Central Park. Photo: Max Hilaire

Hilaire reminds us that Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009 (she and Christo were born on the same day, June 13,1935), “had the affinity to bring joy and beauty to an audience and create indelible memories.”

But, he said, he must “underline the fact that Jeanne-Claude was undeniably the driving force behind Christo’s success. She deserves a significant portion of his reputation for being the front person who had been key at bringing his projects to fruition.”

As a young feminist, Fine Arts Chair Julia Jacquette noticed that “originally, just Christo himself was credited as the artist. That began to change in the 1980s. The artwork began to be referred to as being by ‘Christo and Jean-Claude.’ That Jean-Claude had not been given credit as a collaborator for years was tremendously disheartening to me as a young woman artist. That she finally was being acknowledged was a relief, but seemed long overdue.”

“The Gates” in Central Park. Photo: Max Hilaire

On that sunny winter Sunday in New York City 15 years ago, the buzz about the Gates project, “proved to be a revelation to the great height of the human spirit,” Hilaire said.

The saffron fabric gates whispered in the wind while displaying their translucency in the sun. The gates snaked through the superficies of the whole park with a crowd determined to walk the whole distance,” said Hiliare.

Hilaire recalled the “Mastaba” at the Serpentine in London as well: “The birth of the idea for “Mastaba” dates back to 1958 and materialized in 2017 to 2018.”

“The Mastaba” at the Serpentine in London, 2017-2018. Photo: Max Hiliaire

Mastaba, an Egyptian word, refers to a pyramid tomb with a flat top. The planned original setting was Lake Michigan but the negotiations for that location fell through.

The visual impact of a colorful semi-pyramid in a lake translates best in films and aerial photography, Hilaire says:

“At 492 feet high, 984 feet wide, 738 feet deep, it makes its presence felt. It required 410,000 oil barrels, painted in different colors inside and out and arranged to create a pointillistic effect at a distance. The sketches and drawings for that project stressed every detail and the joint effort for the achievement of such a masterpiece.”

“The Mastaba,” at the Serpentine in London, 2017-2018.  Photo: Max Hilaire

“There were factors aside from the artwork that were notable to me as a young artist. Christo and Jean-Claude created numerous project proposals — often using a combination of collaged photos and drawings — and sold those to finance their proposed projects. The drawings-collages were explanatory and cool looking; the strategy itself was impressive: making artwork, about the artwork, to fund the artwork.” – Julia Jacquette, Chair of Fine Arts and author of the graphic memoir “Playground of My Mind.” 

(Detail) “The Mastaba,” at the Serpentine in London, 2017-2018.  Photo: Max Hilaire

Hilaire noted that Christo was an optimist and never concerned himself with the ephemeral aspects of his projects. When asked about the monumental aspect of his art he replied: “they are not as huge as a bridge or a skyscraper.”

One might imagine that Christo and Jean-Claude had studied everything that FIT has to offer. Their skill sets include Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design; Photography; Fine Arts, Fabrication; Marketing and Public Relations.

The granting of access, engineering, labor and cost … remain the most time-consuming hurdles to deal with. His tenacity combined with his wife’s determination formed an immeasurable creative force. Every component used in every project was sold or recycled.

“The Mastaba,” at the Serpentine in London, 2017-2018.  Photo: Max Hilaire

“Christo’s success shines in his effort to make us experience something entirely new, beautiful and unforgettable,” says Hilaire speaking of Christo’s passing.

To see more work by professors Max Hilaire and Chair Julia Jaquette go to: MaxHilaire.com and JuliaJacquette.net.

All photos courtsey of Prof. Max Hilaire.

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