“Maximal Minimalism,”
a paper delivered at ART, DEMOCRACY AND PUBLIC SPACE: THE CHRISTO AND JEANNE-CLAUDE EFFECT, a symposium presented by The International Association of Art Critics at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 25, 2005.

Christo's cover of TIME Magazine

My first contact with Christo and Jeanne-Claude was In 1989 when, as fine art consultant to TIME Magazine, I proposed commissioning Christo to do the cover of a special issue about the state of the environment: “The Planet of the Year: The Endangered Earth.”

But when I met with Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Christo said, “The idea is banal.”

Jeanne-Claude said, “Christo doesn’t do commissions.”

My deadline was the next Wednesday. “If you change your mind,” I told them, “you can call me at home any time.”

Jeanne-Claude called me at 7:00 Tuesday night. “Christo has an idea,” she said.

The next morning, the art director and I went to the studio, where Christo presented his plan to wrap a globe of the earth in semi-transparent plastic, tie it with twine, and photograph it on the sand at Jones Beach with the sun rising behind it.

It was the perfect image: the earth bound and enshrouded in a claustrophobic film, with the sunrise a sign of optimism.

When we left, Leaving the studio we were walking on air, until the art director asked me what I’d negotiated about the copyright.

Copyright? It was my first commission for TIME, and I had to admit I hadn’t considered it. Hearing this, the art director’s face turned bright red and he started stomping up Broadway.

I spent the next weekend on the phone between Jeanne-Claude and TIME’s lawyer, working out the details of a contract that became TIME’s standard agreement with fine artists. In the process I learned a lot about copyright and also about the way Christo and Jeanne-Claude work.

I learned about their openness to possibility. Their decision to refuse all commissions was one that served them, but it didn’t blind them to the one situation that might be different.

I was impressed by their willingness to negotiate a solution that would maintain their integrity in the project without impeding it. It was a remarkable exercise in both flexibility and inflexibility that comes, not from ego, but from recognition of what’s really important.

After it was over, I received a post card that read simply “You were right,” signed: Christo and Jeanne-Claude

So although the TIME Magazine cover was their smallest public project, it was also the one that reached the most people. And according to newsstand sales, one of the most popular TIME ever ran.

Their work illustrates that even with a minimalist, non-representational approach, high art need not be elite, that artistic rigor and public engagement can indeed go hand in hand. There’s a distinction to be made between work that seeks to be popular by pandering to existing perceptions of what art is, and art that transcends those expectations to create an event that becomes a vehicle for social and esthetic advancement.

And right now we need art to be accessible to the public, because art is one of the few avenues we have to address the culture’s ills.

Art is the evidence of human capability. It is through the creative imagination that individuals have power in society and that society can be changed.

And strangely enough, I will argue that minimal abstraction, thought of as a relic and province of the elite, something one has to have a special education to appreciate is actually the ideal vehicle, because it’s non-partisan; it has no agenda but itself.

Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial (1982) provides an experience that’s equally powerful regardless of whether you supported or opposed the Vietnam War, and is another work that proves art can be extremely popular with the public while being minimal and esthetically acute.

Also an aspect of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work that’s on a level with the esthetic experience is the way it exposes governmental process, as did Maya Lin inadvertently when she was forced to defend her proposal in public hearings.

It’s time we let go of the idea that anything widely appreciated has, by necessity, been dumbed down, that the public hasn’t the capability of understanding sophisticated art. For one thing, the public has changed. In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, economist Richard Florida asserts that fully one-third of the workforce—and the top earning third—is involved in using their creativity to find their self-identity through their work, and that the opportunity to exercise their creativity is more valuable to them than any other financial or lifestyle considerations.

Radically creative ideas are no longer confined to subcultures. In music this is abundantly clear—ten years ago, the distinctly un-hummable music of Radiohead would have excited a few university intellectuals; today it fills stadiums.

And one of the ways we can connect is through beauty, which has gotten a bad rap in the art world in the past 40 or 50 years.

I always say beauty is like the weather: everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it.

One reason is because it’s easier—safer—cooler to be cynical. Beauty requires a wholeheartedness that’s scary in this judgmental world. It can easily be said that Christo and Jeanne-Claude wear their hearts on their sleeves, and that takes guts.

But also underlying this mistrust of beauty is, I think, the genuine fear that it can serve as illusion, a distraction from the gritty side of life, that it will put a gloss on reality and make us oblivious to the need for political action—and that is something we cannot afford.

So I will agitate for beauty—to mediate the economic and political forces of greed that seem determined to uglify the world—but a beauty that does not deal with illusion, a beauty where the means are obvious.

The clearest examples I can think of is the work of Fred Sandback, who created strikingly beautiful forms through the simple act of stretching yarn. Or Dan Flavin’s immensely sensual installations that rely only on standard florescent tubes. We know exactly how they do it, and it’s this obviousness in The Gates that contributes to what Michael Kimmelman so beautifully described in this morning’s panel its “spirit of inclusiveness without condescension.”

Robert Irwin's Doors of Perception

Robert Irwin’s installation at the Dia Foundation in 1999 is another example, so popular it was extended for extra six months. There he created numerous “rooms” with walls of stapled stretched semi-transparent scrim, lit by variously colored fluorescent lights.

This is work that depends on encounter, on direct involvement, as do The Gates. It’s not something to be observed, but to be interacted with, where the artist sets up the situation, but then relinquishes control of the ways it is to be experienced.

Another correlation to The Gates is in its non-hierarchical nature. As Irwin described his piece, “It’s not frontal, it’s not sequential, there’s no beginning, middle, or end. You could, essentially, enter it anywhere.” In The Gates this emphasis on the non-linear extended even to the procedure for the way the unfurling of the fabric was conceived, taking place simultaneously among teams of workers who were responsible for a certain number of gates, so that wherever you were in the park that sunny morning, you were party to the event.

Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project

I spent much of last year investigating the work of Olafur Eliasson, a young European artist who has a commitment to beauty, to art that does not deal in illusion, and who not only isn’t ashamed of his desire to reach as many people as possible with his work, sees that engagement as essential to it. His Weather Project, commissioned for the immense Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern, was an event similar in impact to The Gates, drawing over a million visitors.
Yet here too the esthetic was minimal—a mirrored ceiling that reflected a lighted half-disk, making it appear whole. The reference to the sun was about as close to the real sun as Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Gates are to actual gates—and at every point, like walking behind the curtain that shields the Wizard of Oz—you could see just how it was made.

And as far as the making goes, at the press conference for The Gates, engineer Vince Davenport talked about the surprising freedom the artists allowed him in configuring the sculptural elements. Olafur Eliasson also employs architects, scientists, and engineers to realize his projects and gives them similar latitude. I predict that much of the significant art of the 21st century will be developed as a result of such collaboration.

We entertain the myth of the individual genius, but there is, in reality, no such thing. The great art movements of the past involved groups of artists who exchanged ideas and worked within similar esthetic parameters. Now that art has sprung wide open, no longer required to conform to certain materials or ideology to be seriously considered, that same artistic foment can take place among a number of people working toward realizing the same goal.

So while Christo provides the original esthetic impetus, Jeanne-Claude sets it in motion, and at each step the premise is examined and perhaps modified by others such as Vince Davenport, as well as considerations imposed by the physical and political realities of each situation.

And finally, bringing us to the present subject, a question asked by people on the street, “Why spend all that money on something that isn’t permanent?”

Because after a time, things are often no longer perceived with fresh eyes.

Works of art can become part of the scenery or, in a sense, icons of themselves. Claus Oldenburg understood this back in the ‘70s, when he commemorated the Picasso sculpture at Chicago’s Daley Center with a poster of a monumental Picasso cufflink sited in the square. His reasoning was that after a while it would just be “the Picasso,” something like a logo. And if it was to end up on cufflinks in gift shops at O’Hare, why not just make it a cufflink to begin with?

Thus Olafur Eliasson, when the Tate wanted to extend The Weather Project, asked that it be removed on schedule. “The time after a show is just as interesting,” he said, “because it becomes an object of memory and its meanings change.”

Having lived in Chicago, I’m aware of the special affection people there have for Louis Sullivan’s Stock Exchange Building, demolished in 1972—unlike his Auditorium, which they walk past without seeing, every day. Jeanne-Claude regards this as an additional esthetic quality, the “love and tenderness” one feels for something that can never be experienced again.

The work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude demonstrates what’s possible—esthetically, creatively, and in terms of human cooperation. Arthur Danto has acknowledged the difficulty of recognizing a definitive moment when you’re in it, but this work, which is not only artistically rigorous but collaborative, interactive, and open-ended, may be one of those events that signals art’s future.

-Carol Diehl

Copyright 2005 Carol Diehl


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