Opening: ‘Christo: Early Works, 1958-1963’ at Gagosian Paris

Much like Mark Rothko, whose earliest work was sometimes intensely Expressionist, sometimes even Surrealist in the vain of Dali or Klee, and Marcel Duchamp, who was a Fauvist before he was one of the prime protagonists/troublemakers of dada, Bulgarian born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff began his career in art employing a style few would recognize as coming from him. Of course we all know that he ultimately achieved significant global fame as one-half of the husband-wife duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude, provocatively “wrapping” everything from Berlin’s imposing Reichstag to Paris’ otherwise rapturously romantic Pont Neuf, back in 1985, the masterstroke that first set the world beyond the culture classes chattering about them.

Though he passed away at the height of the pandemic in July of 2020, he actually died not from COVID but from natural causes at his home in New York, aged 84. It was nearly eleven years since Jeanne-Claude was lost to complications from a brain aneurysm.

Seizing a poignant moment, Gagosian has smartly gathered selects from his incipient oeuvre for a timely exhibition called, simply, Christo: Early Works 1958-1963, opening June 10 at their rue de Ponthieu Paris gallery (in the 8e). There’s an almost biographical bent to the show, as it allows the viewer to witness the transition from his nascent Surfaces d’Empaquetage and Cratères series’, to the earliest examples of his wrapped sculptures (he was actually living and working in French capital during those years). The former would most definitely surprise admirers of his later spectacles, with these tactile, relief-style works of paint, lacquer and sand on paper conveying distinctly gothic qualities, in a way recalling Piranesi’s ominous 18th Century I Carceri (imaginary prisons) series, without the stifling claustrophobia.

His Cratères, directly influenced by the 1950s textural work of Jean Dubuffet, are like haunted-looking lunar surfaces, conspicuously created nearly a decade before the first actual Moon landing.

CHRISTO, Package on a Table, 1961
Wooden table, three types of fabric, twine, rope, lacquer and a can
48 13/16 x 24 3/16 x 11 13/16 inches, 124 x 61.5 x 30 cm
© Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation
Photo: Thomas Lannes
Courtesy Gagosian

But his Package, 1960, Package on a Table, 1961, and Two Wrapped Chairs, 1961 contain the definitive seeds of his later grandiose gestures, which would culminate in such monumental (and controversial) works as The Gates (2005) in New York’s Central Park – still with Jeanne-Claude – and 2016’s Floating Piers on Italy’s Lake Iseo.

“I started working on the Cratères, the Wrapped Cans, and the Surfaces d’Empaquetage around the same time, in 1958,” Christo recalled in 2020. “In the beginning, the wrapping was not essential. It was not so much about making an object, but more about the texture of the object itself. I used fabric to wrap the cans, then I applied paint and lacquer to stiffen the fabric. This way they became like a still life.”

His attraction to grand scale began as a fascination with steel oil drums, with necessity partly driving the experiment, as relatively skint artists tend to seek out inexpensive/unusual materials. And while the finished products tended to be more aesthetically classical than industrial, it did drive him on to what would eventually be his most monumental works. One could argue that his career as a “provocateur” began in earnest on June 27, 1962, when he and Jeanne-Claude installed Wall of Oil Barrels—The Iron Curtain, completely shutting down the rue Visconti on Paris’ Left Bank. It blocked significant amounts of traffic, surely to the great scorn of those drivers affected. (Little did they know they were witnessing art history unfold.)

“My interest in Christo dates back to the mid-’70s,” recalls Larry Gagosian, “when I was fortunate to present an exhibition of his work in Los Angeles and to be involved with the incredible project Running Fence (Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972–76), executed with Jeanne-Claude. I am thrilled now, nearly fifty years later, to partner with Christo’s estate and present his work again. These early artworks were pivotal in both the development of Christo’s vision and the history of art.”

Christo: Early Works 1958-1963 will be on exhibit from June 10 through October 8 and Gagosian Paris, 4 rue de Ponthieu, 8e.

Above images:

1,2,3: CHRISTO, Early Works, 1958–1963, installation view, © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation, Photo: Thomas Lannes, Courtesy Gagosian

4: Paris, 1961: Christo during the erection of 26 Oil Barrels (1961) in the studio of photographer Jean-Dominique Lajoux, Not included in the exhibition. Artwork © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation Photo: Jean-Dominique Lajoux, Courtesy Gagosian

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