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Christo, creator of ambitious public art projects, dead at age 84

The Bulgarian-born artist Christo has died. He and his wife were known for their attention-grabbing but ephemeral public art projects, which involved wrapping fabric around iconic structures such as the Reichstag in Berlin or the Pont-Neuf in Paris or erecting large fabric installations in natural environments.

Projects often involved wrapping large structures in fabric

Artist Christo unveils his first U.K. outdoor work, a 20-metre high installation on Serpentine Lake, in London, England, in 2018. He died on Sunday at age 84. (Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Serpentine Galleries)

Christo, known for massive, ephemeral public arts projects, died Sunday at his home in New York at age 84. 

The artist's death was announced on Twitter and on his web page. No cause of death was given.

Christo and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, defined their careers with ambitious art projects that quickly disappeared soon after they were erected.

Their art installations often involved wrapping large structures in fabric.

In 2005, Christo installed more than 7,500 saffron-colored vinyl gates in New York's Central Park. He and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin in fabric with an aluminum sheen in 1995.

One of the projects created by Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude was Wrapped Reichstag, pictured at the remains of the Berlin Wall in 1995. (Jan Bauer/Associated Press)

Their $26 million US Umbrellas project erected 1,340 blue umbrellas installed in Japan and 1,760 blue umbrellas in Southern California in 1991.

They also wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris, the Kunsthalle in Bern, Switzerland, and a Roman wall in Italy.

Still a project to come

Christo's next project, L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, is slated to appear in September in Paris as planned, according to a statement issued by his office.

An exhibition about Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work is also scheduled to run from July through October at the Centre Georges Pompidou.

"Christo lived his life to the fullest, not only dreaming up what seemed impossible but realizing it," the statement said. 

"Christo and Jeanne-Claude's artwork brought people together in shared experiences across the globe, and their work lives on in our hearts and memories."

Couple born 'in the same moment'

Born in Bulgaria in 1935, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff studied at the Fine Arts Academy in Sofia before moving to Prague in 1957, then Vienna, then Geneva.

It was in Paris in 1958 where he met Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon. They were born on the same day (June 13) in the same year (1935), and, according to him, "in the same moment" and would become partners in life and art.

Christo was already wrapping smaller found objects, like cars and furniture, but after he met Jeanne-Claude, their scale broadened. Within three years they were working together on an installation of oil drums and tarp on the docks in Cologne.

Although their large scale outdoor and indoor projects were collaborative, they were all credited solely to Christo until 1994, when they revealed Jeanne-Claude's contributions. The decision, they said, was theirs and deliberate since it was difficult enough for even one artist to make a name for himself.

Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, announce details of a project in 2004 in New York. (Stan Honda/AFP via Getty Images)

The pair moved to New York in 1964, where they liked to say that they were illegal aliens in an illegal building in SoHo for a few years. They eventually bought that building and would call the city home for the rest of their lives.

The year 1968 would prove pivotal for the couple with three endeavours: Wrapped Fountain; Wrapped Medieval Tower; and Wrapped Kunsthalle. The next year brought Wrapped Coast, which involved more than 92,000 square metres of fabric and 56 kilometres of rope across a two-kilometre section of the Australian coastline, and the wrapping of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 at age 74 from complications of a brain aneurysm.

After her death, Christo said she had been argumentative, very critical and always asking questions and he missed all of that very much.

Grand in every respect

Their works were grand in every respect, from manpower to impact.

More than 600 workers were involved in putting up The Gates, and 300 more in dismantling them. More than five million people saw the installation and it was credited with injecting about $254 million US into the local economy.

Running Fence, which was comprised of 2,050 white fabric panels, stretched almost 40 kilometres in Northern California in 1976.

An environmental art project titled Surrounded Islands by artist Christo is pictured during its installation in Miami, Fla., in May 1983. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

A total of 1,880 workers were used for the Umbrella project. That, however, had a more sombre end, when it was dismantled after a spectator died in California.

"I will live with that tragedy to the end of my life," Christo said at the time.

In a 2018 interview with The Art Newspaper, Christo spoke about his signature wrapping esthetic. In the instance of the Reichstag, he said, covering it with fabric made the Victorian sculptures, ornament and decoration disappear and, thus, highlighted "the principal proportion of architecture.

"But, like classical sculpture, all our wrapped projects are not solid buildings; they are moving with the wind, they are breathing," he said. "The fabric is very sensual and inviting; it's like a skin."

Two unfinished projects

Two of Christo's planned projects did not come to fruition before he died. One was called Over the River, which would have involved draping translucent fabric above 67 kilometres of Colorado's Arkansas River. The other was called The Mastaba, which was conceived in 1977 for Abu Dhabi and would have been the largest sculpture in the world with 410,000 multi-coloured barrels forming a "mosaic of bright sparkling colours echoing Islamic architecture."

Christo willingly abandoned the Over the River project in 2017 after 20 years of planning and five years in legal fights.

Artist Christo, pictured in this file photo from Jan. 23, 2013, poses in front of his proposed Over the River project at the Metropolitan State University Center for Visual Art in Denver. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

"I no longer wish to wait on the outcome," the artist wrote on a website for the project. "Here now, the federal government is our landlord. They own the land. I can't do a project that benefits this landlord."

Christo and Jeanne-Claude made a point of paying for all of their works on their own and did not accept scholarship or donations. Instead, they sold preparatory drawings, collages, scale models and original lithographs to earn enough to finance their dreams.

"I like to be absolutely free, to be totally irrational with no justification for what I like to do," Christo said. "I will not give up one centimetre of my freedom for anything."

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