The Autonomous Duo 

An Interview with Christa and Jeanne-Claude

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who worked collectively under the simple moniker "Christo" until 1994, are likely the most uncompromising and driven artists in the world. Their most famous projects are some of the largest and ambitious artworks ever created: Surrounded Islands, in which they surrounded the perimeter of eleven islands off Miami in shiny pink fabric; Valley Curtain, a 142,000 square foot nylon curtain spanning a Colorado valley; and Pont Neuf Wrapped, where the iconic Parisian bridge was temporarily wrapped in woven, silky fabric and ropes.

Here are some fascinating facts about their working process that reveal their emphasis on artistic autonomy and fierce individuality:

* They have never accepted a single sponsorship or grant to finance their projects.

* Christo and Jeanne-Claude handle all of their business themselves, and Christo has never had an assistant, going so far as to frame his own artwork personally.

* They refuse voluntary labor at all costs, save for Jeanne-Claude's mother and a small handful of Australian architecture students who once insisted on working free.

* They have never licensed images of their work for posters or any other commercial ventures, nor do they receive any income from the sale of books or videos about them.

* Christo and Jeanne-Claude will never ride in the same airplane together.

This Saturday, the Portland Art Museum opens an exhibition documenting The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Paris 1975-85. This show of drawings, collages, photographs, and miscellaneous documents has never been shown in America before. I had a chance to talk to the notoriously quarrelsome artists by phone on the occasion of their Portland exhibition.

CB: Have you come to appreciate the challenge of working with the city councils and the park systems--the bureaucracies?

CHRISTO: They are not bureaucracies; they are the makers of the project. Everything in the world belongs to somebody. Every square meter of everything is under the jurisdiction or ownership of somebody. Our temporary works of art borrow that space and create gentle disturbance. Through the permitting process, the project develops an identity. It reveals itself to us. We don't know in advance, "What is the Reichstag, really?" We can read many books, but we are dealing with a space that millions of people use with so many historical and political relations. It is revealed through the permitting process. And this is why we do not do commissions--because we like to have that permitting process to develop the identity of the project.

CB: You take great pains not to block exits of buildings, and you've not destroyed so much as a branch in the upcoming Gates project. No inconveniences for the general public.

JEANNE-CLAUDE: But you are leaving out the mental inconvenience.

C: The projects are woven in the space where people live. And that is a very important part of this. It becomes a reality around them all the time.

CB: They are very un-aggressive pieces, though.

C: Before anything else, we do works of joy and beauty. Beauty is the principle of all the elements of our projects. The work is so unnecessary, so irrational. There is no justification for them. The world can live without the Valley Curtain, without the Running Fence. Nobody needs these projects. They exist because we want to have them. Not because the corporate executive likes to have them. In the last 40 years, we have realized 18 projects and have failed to get permission for 38 projects. Some of the projects we have lost or not gotten permission because we were not intelligent enough. We always blame ourselves when we have a failure on a project. And we abandon some projects because we don't like to do them anymore.

JC: And some projects we don't abandon, and we keep working on them. That's why it took us 10 years to wrap the bridge in Paris.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude will be in town for an opening lecture, book signing, and screening of the Maysles Brothers' film Running Fence, Portland Art Museum, Saturday 2 pm, free, film at 4:30 pm, $7

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Pont Neuf Wrapped 1975-85 runs at the Portland Art Museum, Sept 11-Jan 2

Christo: Works on Paper runs at Elizabeth Leach Gallery through Oct. 2

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