Thursday, April 5, 2012

Magazine covers by artists #5: Christo and Jeanne-Claude

From Artvent, as part of an obituary to Jeanne-Claude:

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 them, 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.”

The next morning, the art director, Rudy Hoglund, 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.

Leaving the studio we were walking on air, until Rudy 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, Rudy'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.

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