The Lives of Artists – Christo and Jeanne-Claude

The New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins describes the inner workings of one of the world’s best known art duos
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Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 2005 - photo by Martin Dürrschnabel - courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons
Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 2005 - photo by Martin Dürrschnabel - courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons

If you want to know what it’s like to be in the presence of important and groundbreaking artists, you should really ask Calvin Tomkins. Over the past 59 years, Tomkins has profiled almost every culturally significant figure in the contemporary art world for The New Yorker magazine.

Our new six-volume anthology of his work, The Lives of Artists, brings these profiles together. There are many delightful long reads in there, but there are also moments when, in just a few finely chiselled sentences, Tomkins describes the range of impressions and emotions one might experience meeting an artist for the first time, face-to-face. 

Consider this description of the artist couple and pioneers of environmental art, Christo and Jeanne-Claude. This particular profile ran in March 2004, as the pair were preparing their 2005 work, The Gates, in Central Park. Here’s how Tomkins describes the pair.

“Christo, who is sixty-eight, wears a roomy black coat that fails to disguise or contain his lean, hyperactive frame, and he carries a black canvas bag containing fifty-two rolled-up maps of the Park, each showing a specific sector in detail. Jeanne-Claude, his wife, also sixty-eight (they both were born on June 13, 1935), has on a full-length down overcoat, but what one notices first is her bright-orange hair.”

 

Calvin Tomkins photo by Sara Barrett
Calvin Tomkins photo by Sara Barrett

That’s a surprisingly deft portrait. With equal precision, later in the piece, Tomkins describes the breakdown of labour between the two.

“It used to be thought that Christo was the artist and Jeanne-Claude was the support system, the one who kept the books, sold Christo’s drawings and collages (he has never had a dealer), arranged the bank loans, paid the bills, and effectively ran the show. She does all that, to be sure, but Christo does a lot of it, too, and since 1994, when they decided to put both their names on the Reichstag project, they have made it very clear that Jeanne-Claude is and always has been the co-artist on their projects, making aesthetic decisions along with her husband. ‘There are only three things we do not do together,’she likes to say. ‘I don’t draw. We never fly on the same plane. And I have deprived Christo of the pleasure of talking with our accountant.’”

 

The Lives of Artists
 

With those bare facts, we gain a wealth of insight into the work and lives of the two artists. For more encounters like this order a copy of The Lives of Artists here. This six-volume set includes 82 of Tomkins's most significant profiles dating from 1962 to 2019. Part art history, part human interest, Tomkins offers insights and observations about the artists, their work, and the ever-changing art world they inhabit. Buy The Lives of Artists here.


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