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Tribute to Jeanne-Claude

Metropolitan Museum of Art
April 26th, 2010

I knew Jeanne-Claude before I went to Berlin in 1995 to see Wrapped Reichstag and write about it for The New York Times, but I don’t think I really understood her until that trip. I arrived a few days before the wrapping was complete, when it was deep in process, with huge armies of workers, all clad in specially printed, colorful T-shirts, swarming all over the site. It was a work of engineering, a work of conceptual art, a work of urban design, a street festival, all at once. It took quite literally hundreds of people, not only to execute it physically, but also to take care of all the ancillary chores. It was, for all intents and purposes, a military operation. And I saw that the general in charge of this was not Christo, but Jeanne-Claude. Not for nothing did she grow up in a family that was closely connected to the French government. She combined the intellectual precision of Descartes with the unwavering determination of DeGaulle.
I have another memory of Berlin—well, another memory beyond the work itself, which was the first major Christo and Jeanne-Claude work that I had seen, and which remains one of the great pieces of art at monumental urban scale that I have ever seen, and one of the few that was not only breathtakingly beautiful, but truly and profoundly transformative of the city. Berlin in the days of Wrapped Reichstag was one of the great street festivals of modern history, with an extraordinary work of art the catalyst of all that went on during those amazing months. But my other memory of that time, however, is more mundane. Somehow—I truly don’t remember how—the piece I wrote for The Times ended up identifying Christo’s partner and collaborator as Jean-Claude, spelled J E A N, not J E A N N E. For whatever reason, the newspaper’s copy editors had not been attuned to the feminine spelling. Well, I suppose it was better than if I had attributed the piece wholly to Christo—that was Jeanne-Claude’s real bête-noir, the continual attribution of their work to Christo alone—but she was only marginally less forgiving. When I got back to New York I found an annotated copy of the Times article waiting for me, marked up in heavy black magic marker by Jeanne-Claude, who circled every single misspelling of her name, and corrected each and every one of them, and then asked if I was aware that she was not a man.
The failings of the Times copy desk did not scar our relationship permanently, and in the last few years, when I had the chance to work closely with Christo and Jeanne-Claude on a new book about their work that will appear this spring—a book that now, sadly, will be a memorial volume rather than a marker of her 75th birthday—it became clear that Jeanne-Claude could outdo any copy editor anywhere. She read every word with brilliant insight, and she was attuned to the most refined nuances of language, in French and English. Our very last conversation was on the phone last fall the very day she suffered her aneurysm—she called me to talk about a tiny conflict she had picked up between the meaning of a phrase in the book in English, and the French translation. It was a Sunday, and I was busy, so I asked if this could possibly wait until the next day. Of course, she said, and we made a date to talk the next afternoon. We never did.

Jeanne-Claude’s determination to correct the misconception that Christo did everything by himself was in part a function of her strong character, in part a determination to stake a claim for women, but most of all, I think, it was the result of her absolute, total, impassioned and unwavering commitment to getting things right. What bothered her most about seeing credit go entirely to Christo wasn’t the effect of this on her ego—her ego, left to its own devices, was plenty strong—but how inaccurate it was. And errors and sloppiness made her blood boil. It was that same commitment to accuracy that led to another side of the issue about credit, one that is not often enough acknowledged, which was the frequency with which she reminded people that not everything was a collaboration, that plenty of things were Christo’s own. The early work, before the major projects began, was his, but so were the drawings and prints that represented the major works. She was a conceptualizer, an organizer, a facilitator—not to mention a force of nature—but she was not someone who sketched on paper herself, and she never pretended to be. She was as rigorous in making sure that all of those works on paper were not attributed to her, and were attributed only to Christo, as she was in asking for her fair share of credit on the large projects.
Those projects could not have happened without her. Jeanne-Claude’s masterful command of logistics combined perfectly with a laser-sharp sense of politics and process. She knew, as Christo did, that the creation of their enormous works was an effort of many years, and that the process of winning approval was in almost every case going to take longer than the process of actually designing and engineering the work. There were zoning boards and planning boards and landowners and mayors and chancellors and coastal commissions and local courts and every other possible kind of authority to deal with. And here, Jeanne-Claude’s Gallic background really came to the fore. Like a good French bureaucrat, she was prepared to wait forever. She would not be moved from her position. She knew what was right, and she had what appeared to be infinite patience. She felt private frustrations over the endless hoops that she and Christo were required to jump through, and she could be both funny and philosophical about them, but she almost never showed any frustrations in public. She knew that every project was a marathon, and she was prepared to run the full course, however long it took. For Jeanne-Claude, every moment of it mattered. She focused on the tiny details, and in so doing, she freed all the rest of us to celebrate the most extravagant, glorious gestures. For her, all of it, from the endless hearings to the triumphant unfurlings, was the same great and passionate adventure.

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