The tension between presence and absence has always been crucial to the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. It took the artists 24 years to get permission to wrap the Reichstag, in Berlin, but the sublime result, “Wrapped Reichstag”—perhaps their most significant undertaking—had a lifespan of a mere two weeks. Their most recent project, “The Gates,” a series of flowing fabric gates installed in Central Park, was first conceived in 1979, but came to fruition only in 2005, after many bureaucratic hearings and bids for permission. It stood in the park for 16 days, during which the gates’ saffron fabric waved in the wind, transforming the park’s walkways. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work is often called monumental, but to call it that is to misunderstand what makes their large-scale spectacles so moving. Where monuments pretend to endure, their work suggests the fleeting nature of our grandest gestures. A romantic might say that each piece evokes the way even the most dedicated passion will be undone by time.
Perhaps now more than ever, Christo understands their pieces evoke “the presence of missing,” as Jeanne-Claude once described it. For Christo lost Jeanne-Claude, his wife and long-term collaborator, after a sudden aneurysm in 2009, and the issue of presence has never been more meaningful. “She cannot be substituted. Cannot be revived. Cannot be reinvented,” says Christo, sitting in his SoHo studio on a recent chilly afternoon.