For over 50 years, the art duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude have wrapped buildings and trees and bridges and famous monuments.
Their distinctive fabric curtains enveloped coastlines, cut vast valleys in two, and surrounded islands. They wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin, the Kunsthalle in Switzerland, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
But one building they never swaddled like a present in fabric and rope was the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
But, in the end, city officials and museum authorities just couldn’t embrace the daring required to green light the proposal. There was the national unrest of a roiling 1968 to worry about and more mundane matters like insurance. The project wasn’t allowed to go on.
In 1964, Christo and Jeanne-Claude docked in New York harbor. They had sailed from France on tourist visas, but once they took in the sight of Manhattan, they were instantly smitten with the city. They never left.
“It is the most human city I have ever lived in. It is also the most cosmopolitan,” Christo later said of Manhattan. “It is the only modern city. It is unstable, and that is good for creating… It is the most ruthless and rootless city, and when we are all so rootless it becomes the only place which gives us a true image of life.”
The couple—who happened to be born on the exact same day—had met in Paris six years earlier when Christo was hired to paint Jeanne-Claude’s mother. Christo was a burgeoning artist recently stripped of his homeland after fleeing the unrest in his native Bulgaria. Moroccan-born Jeanne-Claude was married and hailed from a family of means.
But the attraction between the painter and his subject’s daughter was undeniable. Jeanne-Claude quickly divorced and the two began a romance that would turn into one of the greatest artistic partnerships of the modern era.
While in Paris, Christo began creating “sculptures” by wrapping objects in fabric. It was an early iteration of the style he would become known for, although on a much smaller scale. At the beginning, it was home appliances, telephone poles, and trees that were transformed by his vision.
As Matthias Koddenberg explains in an essay in a recent survey of the artists’ work, Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Urban Projects, Christo was trying to “‘appropriate’ everyday objects, hijack them from their original function and preserve them permanently for posterity by wrapping them. Christo’s approach was direct, immediate and radical. His works were spawned by a direct dialogue with the tangible, physical object.”
But stepping foot onto New York gave him a burst of inspiration. Seeing the towering skyline of Manhattan, he decided that his next wrapped object would take on a much grander scale. He would wrap a skyscraper.
As one might imagine, convincing the suits who owned valuable Manhattan property to allow then-unknown artists to swaddle their gleaming buildings in fabric all in the name of art was not an easy prospect.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude set their sights on one building after another. Not everyone rejected them outright, but, in the end, the plans always ended in denial. As Christo later put it, “Those people thought we were out of our minds.”
They realized that their best option to finally get a major building wrapped would be to look to the world where the crazy ideas of artists were celebrated. They should to try to wrap a museum.
At the beginning of 1968, things were starting to come together for the pair. While none of their proposals had been implemented yet, they were working on several projects that seemed promising.
“The work they planned to do seemed preposterous in the mid-’60s,” art historian Barbara Rose wrote in a 2014 piece for Interview. “But they were brilliant, charismatic, generous, and funny… Even if at the time it seemed they were building castles in the air rather than art objects, it was impossible not to like them or listen to their tales of fantastic projects and voyages.”
By this time, Christo and Jeanne-Claude had pretty much worked out their partnership style. While Jeanne-Claude would only receive retroactive credit for the works in 1994 (this is one success story in the often complicated and depressing history of wives getting their due in the art world), she was intimately involved from the very beginning.
Christo would often dream up the latest scheme, which would be honed by his fiercest critic, Jeanne-Claude, who would then take over the logistics of putting the plan into action.
Most critics and historians are in agreement that none of their 22 realized projects would have been completed without her. (Jeanne-Claude died suddenly from a brain aneurysm in 2009, but 79-year-old Christo continues to work on their projects that remain unfinished.)
On Feb. 1, 1968, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, William Rubin, approached the pair about collaborating on a piece.
Rubin was organizing a blockbuster show called “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage,” and he wanted to know if Christo and Jeanne-Claude wanted to contribute something to mark the end of the exhibition.
Accounts differ as to whether the idea to wrap the MoMA was first presented by the artists or by the curator, but either way, Rubin was very interested.
It wasn’t the only idea that the pair had.
Their full list of proposals to close out the Dada survey were vast and, according to Burt Chernow and Wolfgang Volz’s biography of the artists, included, “wrapping the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, setting up a wall of barrels that would block traffic on the Fifty-third Street side of the museum, wrapping trees inside the main hall, creating a mastaba of oil barrels in the lobby, and wrapping women who would be placed on pedestals for the closing night.”
Unlike the reception their private building proposals received, the powers that be at the MoMA were intrigued. Christo set about making his characteristic preliminary drawings and models.
From the beginning, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wanted to preserve their artistic freedom above all else.
To this day, they have never taken sponsorship for any of their massive works, most of which occur on public land that they rent for the project, and they fund all of their works out of the proceeds of sales of Christo’s extensive sketches, drawings, and models that he completes for each project.
But when it came down to decision time, the museum administration just couldn’t take the chance. The main reason cited for this is insurance. It was a hurdle the artists would encounter time and time again (along with the whims and lack of vision of politicians and city administrators). The insurance company informed the MoMA that the minute the wrapping went up, their insurance coverage would cease.
But there was another problem, as well. Riots had broken out around the country in April of 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and student protests had just disrupted Columbia University’s campus. The museum’s administration was worried that the radical disturbance posed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s piece may contribute to this unrest.
“Concerns about similar riots were too great for those responsible in New York to even consider granting their approval,” Koddenberg writes. “At the same time, their hesitation betrays the tremendous social dynamite they attributed to the project at the time. Perhaps this fact alone says more about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art than the wrapping per se.”
Christo has called their work “irrational, irresponsible, useless,” and there have been endless debates over the meaning of their grand architectural sculptures, of both the wrapped and “unwrapped” varieties. (There have been many projects that have taken different forms, like the recent blockbuster Floating Piers in Italy, The Umbrellas, which was simultaneously mounted in Japan and the U.S. in the early ’90s, and The Gates in New York City’s Central Park in 2005).
But it’s also true that these beautiful swaths of fabric make you look at the natural land—the Australian coastline, a Florida island, Central Park—in a new way. The work is quiet, perhaps more aesthetically pleasing than socially meaningfully, but it is also profound.
“We borrow space and create gentle disturbances for a few days,” Christo has said. “We inherit everything that is inherent in the space to become part of the work of art. All our projects are like fabulous expeditions.”