Recognizing Jeanne-Claude

In April 1994, married artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude fielded a question during an art-college lecture that forever altered their artistic practice. According to Wolfgang Volz, the couple's friend and photographer, a man in the audience inquired after "the young poet Cyril, Christo's son." Jeanne-Claude, Cyril's mother, wasn't mentioned. A discussion the artists, born Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon and Christo Javacheff, had been having for some time about fully attributing their collaborative works to the both of them, and what that might mean economically and aesthetically, was foregrounded by an innocuous question about the couple's most intimate collaboration. From that point forward -- and in revision, as far back as 1961 -- the works of Christo became the works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

With the death of Jeanne-Claude on Nov. 18, at age 74, comes an opportunity to reconsider her contribution to the greatest collaboration in contemporary art. Out of their partnership came many of the environmental art installations that gave the genre form, including 2005's The Gates -- the celebrated, temporary installation of some 7,000 saffron-colored fabric panels in Central Park. Giving Christo the bulk of the credit -- or failing to give Jeanne-Claude her due -- misunderstands the enduring significance of their work. While Christo worked primarily on the drawings and models that made their enterprise possible, Jeanne-Claude focused on the fairly enormous behind-the scenes tasks that lend their work its post-Marxist heft.

"In case you don't know who Jeanne-Claude is," wrote Charlie Finch, author and critic for Artnet magazine, in 2003, "she's in our opinion the vulgar, opportunistic wife of overrated pussy-whipped artist Christo." Published to condemn the announcement that The Gates would finally proceed, Finch's vile attitude registered the more polite and broadly held opinion that Jeanne-Claude played second fiddle to Christo. In his review, Michael Kimmelman attributed The Gates to "Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude" -- before dropping her name altogether, despite the fact that by 1979 -- the year they proposed The Gates, Christo and Jeanne-Claude had been working together for nearly two decades. While subsequent stories in the The New York Times were careful to name both artists on every mention during the media deluge precipitated by The Gates, several persisted with the subservient appositive for Jeanne-Claude in the months that followed, well after Christo opened a press conference at the Metropolitan Museum by blasting the Times and calling on it to recognize Jeanne-Claude.

Giving Jeanne-Claude her due is complicated by the fact that for many years, the two remained silent on her participation. Christo insisted that Surrounded Islands -- a two-week project in which the artists surrounded 11 islands off Miami Beach with floating pink polypropylene fabric in 1983 -- was entirely Jeanne-Claude's idea, but only after the two had secured the permit to execute the work. Neither did Christo insist that his partner's name be included in Christo, the title for the artists' 1990 retrospective exhibit in Australia, the largest to date at that time. And the two had been working almost exclusively on joint projects for nine years by the time David Bourdon's large monograph, Christo, was published in 1970.

It did not help, of course, that the art world in which they rose to prominence preferred men well into the 1970s, and arguably still does today. Christo was wrapping objects and stacking oil barrels before he met Jeanne-Claude; their joint works continued to draw from his vocabulary of spare, recycled, industrial materials. Using those, Christo and Jeanne-Claude created installations that embraced ephemerality and the post-Marxist critique of the art world and precious objects. They still required money to make their work. Christo created the drawings and models, the commodities that persist in the art market after ephemeral public projects come down -- and upon which the two relied for income and financing. His drawings were shown in galleries to collectors, critics, dealers, and the public for years before one of their site-specific installations come into being -- typically for only two weeks.

As their practice evolved -- and as the art world came to embrace environmental art -- Jeanne-Claude's contributions grew more visible. The six documentary films that Albert and David Maysles made since 1974 about the two showcase the tireless diplomacy of Jeanne-Claude, as she wrestles with angry conservatives and lobbies bureaucrats for permits. Though the pair originally decided it would be easier to brand Christo, Jeanne-Claude eventually got credit for her managerial role. Before April 1994, when Christo and Jeanne-Claude released a declaration of "co-authorship of projects in the past and the present," the credit she received was frequently framed as a personal criticism rather than artistic recognition. As Morley Safer put it on 60 Minutes in 2005, "They speak mainly with one voice: hers."

For Over the River: Project for Arkansas River, Colorado, a project slated for as early as 2011, Christo and Jeanne-Claude faced a daunting proposition: convincing the Bureau of Land Management to grant them permission to erect a shimmering, fabric canopy over some six miles of the Arkansas River. Any project on federal lands must undergo an environmental assessment; a project of this magnitude requires a lengthier, more detailed, more expensive survey known as an environmental impact statement (EIS). A heavyweight permissions document, the EIS is typically reserved for oil and drilling operations on federal land. Jeanne-Claude spearheaded this effort, working with Colorado officials and the team's engineers for the first such government survey ever conducted for a piece of art. Nearing completion, the EIS for Over the River -- a piece that would exist for just two consecutive weeks -- stands at 2,000 pages.

Political animals, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have lobbied governments in the U.S., Japan, Switzerland, Italy, and France. It took 70 minutes of debate and a vote by the German parliament before Christo and Jeanne-Claude got permission to wrap the Reichstag in Berlin. The artists' only other unrealized project, The Mastaba, is a pyramid of 410,000 brightly colored oil barrels for the United Arab Emirates. It would be the artists' first foray into the Islamic world.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude had to win over the art world, too, an institution as byzantine as any government. If Jeanne-Claude's portion of their work was in large part managing and bringing about the wrapping of the Pont Neuf in gold fabric despite then-Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac's grave hesitations, so much the better -- the process is the work. Jeanne-Claude's battle for recognition has helped shed light on the art world's discomfort with recognizing both women and the process behind creating large-scale work. That process was part of her work, too.