When the Gibbes Museum opened in 1905, the nation celebrated what Charleston has always understood: the power of art – to inspire our imagination, heal our hurt, and nourish our souls.

Remembering Christo (June 13, 1935 – May 31, 2020)

Christo Floating Piers

I was saddened to learn of the death of the artist Christo—whose iconic works around the world have delighted and awed millions of visitors. The Bulgarian-born conceptual artist and his wife and creative partner Jeanne-Claude created epic-scale works that involved transforming landscapes, buildings, and public spaces—taking decades to orchestrate each project. From the installation of The Gates in NYC’s Central Park in 2005; the wrapping of the Pont Neuf in Paris and the Reichstag in Berlin; and the most recent Floating Piers in Northern Italy in 2016, the works of Christo create a sense of joy, spectacle, and an art experience not to be missed.

Christo The Gates
Andrew and Lasley Steever in NYC’s Central Park during the installation of The Gates in 2005.

I was lucky to live in NYC and work at The Metropolitan Museum of Art when The Gates were installed in 2005. The Met staff was invited to hear lectures by Christo and Jeanne-Claude about their plans to install the monumental structures throughout the public park surrounding the museum, and I remember being so impressed by their passion and their conviction to bring this and other projects to fruition, despite the many years it took to mount each one. Every project, they explained, required decades of lobbying for approval by public officials, environmental impact studies, rallying public support, and the couple saw this as part of their artistic process. I also remember my surprise to learn that they accepted no grants or public funds to produce their work. All expenses were paid by the sale of Christo’s drawings and models to collectors or museums. During the installation of The Gates, volunteers handed out small squares of the saffron fabric to visitors and I still have mine pinned to a bulletin board in my office.

The Gibbes Museum was fortunate to have multiple opportunities to engage with the artist, including bringing him to speak in Charleston in 2010, thanks to a personal connection with philanthropists and collectors Esther and Jim Ferguson. A precursor to our Distinguished Lecture Series, founded with the support of former Museum Board member Esther Ferguson, the lecture by Christo allowed Charlestonians to hear directly from the artist about his process and inspiration. The following year, a group of Gibbes Members traveled to NYC to celebrate the exhibition Grandeur Preserved: Masterworks Presented by Historic Charleston Foundation, about Charleston and its art at the 2011 Winter Antiques Show at the NYC Armory. One of the itinerary stops for our group was a visit to Christo’s studio in lower Manhattan. It was amazing to be in the lair of such an unusual and inventive mind and the group was able to hear more about plans for future projects and see many of the drawings and models the artist used in his creative process.

Jim and Esther Ferguson with Christo
Jim and Esther Ferguson with Christo in Charleston, 2010. Photo by Julia Lynn.

The work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude provokes curiosity, challenges traditional concepts of art, and inspires joy in the many millions who experience his works. In 2016, I realized that my family would be in Northern Italy during the installation of his most recent work, The Floating Piers. Determined not to miss the serendipitous opportunity, my husband and I, with our two-year-old son, ignored the warnings of all the local Italians who informed us it would be impossible given the record crowds to the tiny lake village. We found a friend of a friend with a permit to drive his car into the town center, otherwise closed to traffic, and hired him to take us there on the last day of the installation. Hundreds of thousands of people walked across the water on an undulating bridge and around the small island in the middle of Lake Iseo, all swathed in a bright orangish-yellow fabric. It was packed, and hot, and I constantly corralled my toddler to stop him from running off the big raft into the water, but it was magical.

In a 1958 letter, Christo wrote, “Beauty, science, and art will always triumph.” I hold those words closely today. There is still one project—the wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris—which was first conceived in 1962 and is scheduled to go ahead in September 2021. I guess I know where I’ll hope to be at that time next year.

Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, known as Christo, June 13, 1935 – May 31, 2020.

—Lasley Steever, Director of Education and Digital Engagement, Gibbes Museum of Art

Published June 5, 2020

Top Image: Visitors on The Floating Piers on Lake Iseo, Italy.

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