It is Christo's final show. But is it the last we will see of him?
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It is Christo's final show. But is it the last we will see of him?
An assortment of Christo’s work from the early 1960s, part of the exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris, on July 3, 2020. The artist, who died in May, had planned to wrap the Arc de Triomphe. The project is delayed, but on track for next year, and his collaborators hope they can pull off one more feat, too. Julien Mignot/The New York Times.

PARIS (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In September 2021, the Arc de Triomphe — that stately arch at one end of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris — is set to be wrapped in lustrous fabric as part of a temporary installation by Christo, the Bulgarian-born artist.

Christo died May 31, two weeks before his 85th birthday, but not before working out every last detail of the Arc de Triomphe project. He was also involved in the making of an exhibition that just opened at the Pompidou Center in Paris, running through Oct. 19, which focuses on the years when he lived and worked in the French capital: his beginnings as an artist, the encounter with the woman who would become his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude Denat, and his 1985 wrapping of the Pont Neuf.

The exhibition was scheduled to open March 18, but it was postponed when France went into lockdown because of the coronavirus. Christo did not live to see it.

The wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe is not the only Christo work that is planned to be installed posthumously. His New York-based collaborators — led by his nephew Vladimir Yavachev and by Jeanne-Claude’s nephew Jonathan Henery — aim to realize another of his lifelong ambitions: a trapezoidal pyramid (or mastaba) made of oil barrels, permanently installed in the Abu Dhabi desert. Raising the $350 million budget for it will be tough.

Christo’s team “are extraordinarily competent, and they know all the nuances of the Arc de Triomphe project, because they’ve been there working on everything,” said Jonathan Fineberg, a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia who has written on Christo and Jeanne-Claude. “They know exactly what Christo wanted to do, and Christo wanted this project to be built whether he was there or not.”

The idea for the Arc de Triomphe came up three years ago when the Pompidou Center asked Christo if he could design an outdoor installation to coincide with the exhibition. Christo said the only thing he wanted to do in Paris was to realize his dream of wrapping the Arc de Triomphe. The Pompidou helped him secure the necessary permissions, including the go-ahead from President Emmanuel Macron of France.

Wrapping the Arc — which is taller than the Reichstag in Berlin that Christo enveloped in 1995 — will require 270,000 square feet of polypropylene fabric covered with pulverized aluminum to give it a silvery blue sheen. It will be fastened with roughly 2 miles of red rope in a subtle suggestion of the colors of the French flag. The whole thing will cost about 12 million to 14 million euros (around $13.5 million to $16 million), according to Yavachev.

The site has some specific challenges, Yavachev added. Technicians will have to build an overhead platform so that a nightly ceremony in honor of the Unknown Soldier can continue during the installation, he said. After ornithologists notified Christo that a species of falcon nested in the Arc de Triomphe every spring, the project was postponed from April to September of this year to avoid disrupting the birds.

It was then delayed another 12 months because of the coronavirus outbreak and is now scheduled to run from Sept. 18 through Oct. 3, 2021.

Yavachev said that his uncle’s death had left him feeling “very, very sad.” But his day-to-day work had not changed much — except for one thing. “I can’t make that phone call when, sometimes, I just want to talk to him,” he said. “I catch myself picking up the phone to call, and I realize I can’t.”

The Pompidou exhibition contains early works by Christo that have never been seen — paintings stowed away for decades in the basement of a property in France belonging to Jeanne-Claude’s father — and offers intriguing clues to his life and work.

When the young art graduate escaped the Eastern bloc and arrived in the French capital in 1958, he moved into a maid’s room with a view of the Arc de Triomphe. “It was the monument to conquer: an important symbol for the young artist who had just arrived in Paris,” said Sophie Duplaix, curator of the Pompidou show.

There, Christo created his first wrapped sculptures. He enveloped paint cans, oil drums, a toy horse and a shopping cart in materials such as fabric, plastic and oil cloth. He also carried out stealth wrappings of public statues, which were filmed for posterity. He then scaled up his ambitions, and the Arc de Triomphe was one edifice he fantasized about enveloping. A 1962-63 black-and-white photomontage in the exhibition shows a view through the windshield of a car driving toward the arch at night. In the monument’s place is a blowup of one of Christo’s own sculptures (also in the show): a rectangular object tightly wrapped in fabric and thread.

As Duplaix explained, those early objects, like the monuments that would come later, were never randomly wrapped. Every pleat and fold in the fabric, every attaching cord was carefully composed, as if they were lines in a sketch or a painting. “He drew with thread and rope,” she said.

From the early 1970s, after moving to New York, Christo and Jeanne-Claude pulled off a succession of seemingly impossible projects: stretching a 25-mile fence across parts of Northern California; wrapping the Pont Neuf and the Reichstag; surrounding 13 islands in Biscayne Bay, Florida, with 6.5 million square feet of floating pink fabric. Projects took years to negotiate with the various authorities and local communities. They were paid for through the sale of Christo’s preparatory drawings, collages and maquettes.

Christo had conceived of the Abu Dhabi mastaba from at least the 1970s. In 2018, a smaller-scale, floating version was created for a Serpentine Galleries exhibition in London. As tall as the Sphinx, it consisted of some 7,500 painted and horizontally stacked barrels.

In an interview with The New York Times before the London show, Christo said he did not know whether the Abu Dhabi mastaba — a monument roughly eight times as high — would ever materialize. “I am like a chess player,” he said. “But we are advancing. I feel very excited.”

“I hope to live to when the project has happened,” he said, although his presence was not essential: “The mastaba of the Middle East can be built without me. It’s already been decided — the color, everything.”

But Fineberg, the Christo chronicler, said the project was of “a different order of magnitude” to the Arc de Triomphe. “I don’t know whether that’s realizable without Christo’s charisma to drive the financing,” he said.

Nonetheless, Yavachev sounded confident. “I am convinced we will do it,” he said. “It may take 10 years, 15 years.” While there were no current discussions with the government of Abu Dhabi, studies had been done by accountancy firms, and “the project can be self-financed through different ways,” he said.

If the Middle East mastaba never sees the light of day, the Arc de Triomphe will most likely be Christo’s last hurrah.

Christo’s longtime London dealer David Juda, director of the Annely Juda Fine Art gallery, said the artist was unconcerned about the longevity of his artworks. In 1971, a major London museum decided to buy a Christo collage and sent a conservator to the gallery to look at it.

“The conservator said: ‘What are we going to do with the staples? They’re going to rust the canvas away. This is a conservation horror,’” Juda recalled. When Juda put the question to Christo, the reply was basically a verbal shrug.

“Christo said, ‘You have to understand: Art is alive,’” Juda recalled. “‘And if art is alive, it must die.’”

Event Notes:

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Paris!

Through Oct. 19 at the Pompidou Center in Paris;

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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