Skip to main content

'Since childhood, we go for those words 'Once upon a time,' " says Christo's wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude in a forthcoming documentary on the artistic couple. She was referring to the ephemeral quality of their epic projects, which have included the temporary wrapping of the Pont-Neuf in Paris, the Reichstag in Berlin, and a section of the Australian coastline.

Brevity is one of the magic ingredients of their art. Their upcoming intervention in New York's Central Park will be another such fleeting event: 7,500 saffron-coloured ceremonial gates hung with billowing orange fabric, installed over 50 kilometres of pedestrian pathways. Twenty-five years in the planning, it will bloom for just two weeks next month (Feb. 12 to 27), becoming, however briefly, a mecca for art lovers around the world.

Fortunately, Christo has been scrupulous about documenting the couple's working process, making preparatory studies and collages as well as documentary photographs that continue to tell the tales of their exploits long after the fabric, rope and manpower have been disbanded. These documents have another function too: Christo and Jeanne-Claude will accept no corporate or government money for their endeavours. All funds are raised through the sale of their studies and documents.

At the AGO, starting this weekend, Christo fans will find an excellent small exhibition of these works, all of them acquired by Toronto grocery magnate Galen Weston. The exhibition is particularly timely, on the eve of the New York unveiling. All the abiding themes of the artists' work are set out for inspection here, with most of their major projects accounted for.

Christo alone makes the collages and works on paper (the public projects are collaborations then executed jointly with Jeanne-Claude) and they tell us a lot about the way his mind works. With Christo, it's all about the edge, that threshold between a thing and the world around it. In virtually all of the works on display -- multimedia studies inscribed with the artist's measurements and technical requirements -- you consistently observe Christo enlivening the edges, the place where one material stops and another begins.

In his collage study for Packed Coast, Project for Australia, Little Bay (1969), one of the most striking works in the show, the two-dimensional piece is lifted into three dimensions through the addition of fabric and twine to the drawing. His use of materials is complex, involving, as well, enamel paint, graphite, wax crayon, tape, staples and glue, with all of these materials working to accentuate the seams between water, rock and sky.

The exhibition also allows us to trace the shifting tenor of Christo's sensibility over the years. The earlier wrapping pieces suggested anxious confinement, the legacy, perhaps, of the artist's early experiences in Stalinist Bulgaria before his flight to the West. In Wrapped Telephone, executed in 1987 after a 1963 sculpture of the same name, Christo draws an old-fashioned rotary phone on the paper and then swaddles it in transparent polyethylene, binding it with string and securing it with staples onto the picture surface. The work suggests the impossibility of communication, evoking a dreadful isolation.

Another early collage work, Package on a Table (begun in 1961), describes an ambiguous bundle on a tabletop, suggesting an object in storage or in transit (packed for the movers), or a thing hidden and protected, or maybe even something shrouded for the off-season, as if the white fabric were thrown over top to protect an antique treasure from the ravages of dust and rodents. Looking at it, you feel a mournfulness.

By the mid-1980s, though, Christo's wrapping takes on the demeanour of adornment. The Pont-Neuf, wrapped in 1985, hovers like an apparition above the Seine, clad in a pale gold evening gown all shimmering and ruched over the generous bust line of her battlements. The Reichstag, wrapped 10 years later, looks spectacular in silver Miyake-like pleats. As Christo moves through the years, he takes an upward path toward euphoria.

Not all of Christo's works have involved wrapping. At times, the impulse is toward intervention rather than containment. Earlier works in this vein include his famous Running Fence in Marin and Sonoma Counties, California, back in 1976 -- a 39-kilometre ribbon of billowing white nylon that ran westward from Highway 101 across a patchwork of farmers' fields and parkland and out to the wild Pacific. For Surrounded Islands (1983), he skirted a cluster of islands in Biscayne Bay, Fla., with more than 600,000 square metres of floating pink polypropylene fabric, creating the effect, from the air, of giant, hot-pink lilypads floating in the tropical blue.

These projects involved altering the observer's perceptions of the landscape by highlighting its contours and dimensions through art, asserting a benign and philosophical human presence at play in nature. Their scale is epic, but they leave no trace -- just the memory of events in the world that shifted our sense of the possible. We go to the drawings to remember.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Works from the Weston Collection opens tomorrow at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St. W., 416-977-0414. Adults $12. The exhibition closes May 15.