Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s enduring en-wrap-ture

By Sarah Balcombe

The collection of the recently deceased Christo (1935-2020) and his wife Jeanne-Claude (1935-2009) featured significant artists such as Andy Warhol, Yves Klein and Keith Haring. It also provided a powerful context to their own work. This dynamic artist couple defied categorization with work which transcended borders, both literal and metaphorical. Sotheby’s has done its best to capitalize on that success by association with Unwrapped, Part 1: the Hidden World of Christo & Jeanne-Claude.

Seen alongside artists such as Lucio Fontana and Joan Miró further legitimizes their art which courted controversy and celebration, sometimes in equal measures. If there was any doubt over the extent of their contribution to modern art, last week’s auction demonstrates its significance and its longevity. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s legacy of almost two dozen realized projects, each of extraordinary scale, is testament to the artistry, dedication and tenacity of the couple. That these were temporary installations, self-funded by sales of their own preparatory artwork, demonstrated their philosophy of accessible and inclusive art; in its truest form, art is for everyone. The value of their astonishing projects such as Wrapped Reichstag, in the mid 90s, and Surrounded Islands in Biscayne Bay, Miami, a little more than a decade earlier, is heightened by the fact that their drawings and prints are, in fact, the only remaining pieces of art of their installations.

The artists were clear in their vision that the actual materials of their installations were not to be sold or hoarded, all parts were industrially recycled. So that Sothebys is essentially selling memories of projects, at a time when public art by outliers such as Banksy struggles to remain in the public domain, is particularly poignant. Comparisons will be drawn between all of these artists, especially that of Keith Haring, not only because there is documented mutual admiration, between each artist, but that Haring’s predominantly street art was essentially public. This is clever alignment in repositioning the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude within the canon of urban life, to speak more strongly of inclusivity and representation, especially during the pandemic.

Christo WRAPPED REICHSTAG signed, partly titled, dated 1979 and variously inscribed; variously inscribed on the reverse collage with pencil, fabric, twine, pastel, crayon and ballpoint pen on card, in two parts i. 28.5 by 71.5 cm. 11 1/4 by 28 1/4 in. ii. 56.5 by 71.5 cm. 22 1/4 by 28 1/4 in.
Sold in a previous auction in February 2020 by Sothebys.

The tenacity of this artist couple is especially impressive and the scale and construction of their work begs for it to be considered as architecture, too. Wrapping the Reichstag in over a million square feet of aluminium colored polypropylene and blue rope for Wrapped Reichstag, in 1995, was 24 years in the making and required vast engineering input. This was not atypical for the projects of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Both the time and cost of their projects was considerable. The bureaucracy, too, was on a scale which matched, if not exceeded the mammoth size of their projects. It often took decades to secure permits; administrations came and went before projects were realized. By re-imagining projects from rejected locations, sometimes decades earlier, they re-invented the notion of “site-specific” and showed versatility by pivoting and adapting. Bringing art to the people, with no possibility of ownership and allowing art to be experienced outside, in both urban and rural landscapes, demonstrates exemplary social distancing measures. Bringing people to the art is just as relevant. In 2005’s The Gates, situated in New York City’s Central Park, brought an estimated four million visitors to the city and generated an astounding $254 million, according to New York City’s, then mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude THE GATES, 1975-2005, New York City

This couldn’t be more eagerly anticipated today, when the primary method of art engagement has had to shift. Museums and artists are having to shatter pre-conceptions as to how their collections can be experienced. It is hard to imagine that Sothebys could have picked a more apt time for this auction, when the need for inclusive art that speaks of sustainability, vision, boldness and action which has to be viewed outside, could not have been greater. That the auction was set in Paris offers another layer of escapism for many at a time when Netflix’s Emily in Paris was recently renewed for a second season. It also has classic romantic appeal and is the place where the couple first met.  Although Christo’s roots hearken back to his socialist Bulgaria, “their spiritual home” was Paris, according to Simon Shaw, the vice chairman of the fine arts division of Sotheby’s. Most significantly it also this year’s site for the anticipated realization of their 1961 project, L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped . Just as the works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude were and continue to be fleeting moments in a rapidly changing world, so their art collection captures and shares a snapshot of the lives of the artists and their friends. With last week’s first part of the auction tripling estimates and netting a staggering $9.8million, it appears that collectors attributed value not only to the legacy of this couple, but also to this intimate portrayal of their community.

Attracting and inspiring an outdoor audience has never been more relevant. Ditto raising the level of inquiry, debate and demonstrating social justice. As time moves on, perceptions have shifted and finally, it appears, caught up. The artists’ play with scale and interceptions in the landscape currently seem less disruptive, even more palatable following architect Rem Koolhaas’ Countryside, The Future exhibition at the Guggenheim. Enormity of scale has taken on an even broader meaning during a global pandemic when incomprehensible tolls and spatial limitations are being grappled with on a daily basis. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s early commitment to sustainability in the form of recycling is exemplary. And even if none of the above had been applied, it is likely that presenting the sheer aesthetic beauty of their projects, especially during this time, to a general public who have been starved of travel and adventure for over a year, would have been enough.

Primarily these projects continue to encourage debate and raise awareness of beauty, of scale and of freedom.  Christo and Jeanne-Claude helped to re-write the narrative of public art half a century ago and their work continues to inspire and impress. Such is their legacy. Sotheby’s attempts to capitalize on that is hardly surprising, but with his comment to ArtNet a year ago, “I am an educated Marxist, I use the capitalist system to the very end. It’s economical, clever, and it’s stupid not to do it,” Christo, it seems, could very well be having the last laugh.


Talkin’ Bout a Revolution (in Concrete)

By Sarah Balcombe

Could there be a new style of architecture, in the mix, so to speak, for concrete?

Historically, there’s nothing new about concrete. A sand and cement mixture dating back to Nabatean (Bedouin) traders was used to build the first concrete-like structures around 6500BC, using hydraulic lime as waterproofing for underground cisterns. 


Geographically this was possible due to the deposits formed by reactions between limestone and oil shale around 12 million years ago in what is now Israel. Addressing potential structural failure, the Nabateans introduced tamping using specific tools to increase the bonding gel produced by the chemical reaction which naturally occurs during hydration. 

This is key to the exciting article in last week’s New York Times, recording the creation of a new kind of concrete, by a team at University of Colorado, Boulder, which utilizes energy to create calcium carbonate.


The energy is released by cyanobacteria, when sand and water are added during a photosynthesis process. Using gelatin as a catalyst assists the speed and formation of bonds, and with moulds/shuttering, a concrete block forms. Though the block is not as strong as conventional concrete, DARPA, the Defense Department research funder was extremely excited by the result, not just due to its initial bright green color and DARPA branding, with a recessed logo on its side, but because of its potential. As a “live” material the block could be cut weeks later, and with the addition of raw materials  formed new concrete, with the capacity to generate three new generations per block. This made the concrete itself reproducible, massively reducing its carbon footprint, already reduced by the carbon dioxide absorbing qualities of the cynobacteria. This material also reduces the necessity for “virgin sand” a rapidly depleting natural material required in the manufacture of conventional concrete. According to Dr Srubar, head of the research project, waste materials such as ground glass or recycled concrete could be ground into particles to mimic the sand, forming similar bonds.

 As Guy Thompson of the Concrete Centre stated in November’s Concrete Quarterly, “Innovation is an  exciting process, but it is also a lengthy and costly one.” He mentioned that the success of new materials can only be secured after years of rigorous testing and price competitiveness. Optimistically though he states “a more collaborative pan-industry approach would help us achieve our goals more quickly”. This concrete could be just the collaborative product that these teams could bring to the marketplace.

If concrete heralded Nabatean and classical civilization,  birthed modernism and whose face defined brutalism, what new architecture can we hope for with this new concrete? Certainly a more environmentally friendly, cost- effective and transformative one. Responsive to light could this generate less articulated, more organic facades which store energy efficiently,  spurning a new generation of intelligent facades?

In the facade of Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, by Jean Nouvel, apertures respond to solar rays.

In the company of algae walls and mashribiya-like solar facades (above), could this live concrete be the material for a new critical regionalism in an age of diversity?


Will Alsop’s “Lifting the Spirit” Legacy

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A painter, first and last, the architect Will Alsop provided a much-needed injection of humor and vitality to the somewhat staid pre-millennial architectural scene in London.  Manhattan Modernist recalls this larger than life figure, lecturing at Cambridge University’s School of Architecture, with a glass of scotch in one hand and a cigar in the other. An appropriate stance for this colorful figure whose flamboyancy extended to his cigar-shaped and geometric buildings on legs. Memorable structures include Cardiff Bay Visitor Centre, UK, 1990 (above), Marseille’s regional government headquarters, France, 1994 (below), Hamburg Ferry Terminal, Germany, 1993, and his refreshingly blue North Greenwich Tube Station, UK, 1998.

With strong modernist roots,  and a penchant for Pop Art and Archigram, Alsop’s architectural career was as dramatic and almost as chequered as his Sharp Centre for Design, at Ontario College of Art & Design, 2004, (below) his practice entering receivership, followed by rebrands  and relaunches.

Nevertheless his painterly buildings, vibrant personality and his Stirling Prize winning seminal Peckham Library, 2000, challenged conventionality, emitting optimism and confidence in an uncertain context. Will and his claim that  “lifting the spirit (..) is the job of the architect” will be missed.

(Photo Credit: Roderick Coyne. Other images are courtesy of All Design for Dezeen.)


Shaken, But Not Stirred


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Hot on the heels of the news that Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK, defunct for the past 16 years, is successfully embracing its jet-set past and being transformed into a hotel complete with martini bar and that 1960s vibe, above, reports that Marcel Breuer’s Pirelli building, below, in New Haven, Connecticut, may be  similarly developed, is good news indeed. In a throw-away society, when buildings are often considered as disposable as the products by the IKEA store that owns the Breuer building, it is refreshing to see that there is a growing movement towards adaptable re-use of our modernist heritage.

Marcel Breuer’s legacy is still evident in this part of Connecticut with  surviving homes such as Donald N. Clarke House in Orange and  628 West Rd in New Canaan, that was actually Marcel Breuer’s own home. His non-residential, less-local buildings include UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris and Atlanta Central Library (1980) GeorgiaWhilst Breuer’s most well-know building is probably the granite-clad striking Manhattan’s Met Breuer, below, (originally the Whitney Museum, completed in 1966), the fact that he was teaching at Harvard and one of the members of the Harvard Five, asserts his rightful place in architectural history.

A muscular concrete stack amidst the stately homes of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the Whitney imposes itself on the neighborhood, an architectural statement as challenging as the work housed inside. The granite exterior, ascending edges and upside-down windows, initially seen as pushy and gauche, are now recognized as inspired and grandiose.  Photo 10 of 12 in Design Icon: 10 Buildings by Marcel Breuer



Ironically, Breuer may be better remembered as the teacher of Philip Johnson, whose Glass House, below, brought European modernism to the US , heralding the introduction of the International Style architecture to the Connecticut residential vernacular.


Despite the  inspiration for the Glass House, above, being credited to Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, Johnson’s iconic home is rapidly approaching its 70 year anniversary and is still considered one of the finest examples of  modern architecture, with its innovative use of glass and steel and its integration into the landscape. Though it has the privileged distinction of being designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997 and is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, many of Breuer’s buildings lack that protection. Let us hope that his Pirelli building will avoid demolition by joining the ranks of these other modernist masterpieces, recognised for their architectural integrity, ingenuity and for some, adaptability.

(Photo credits From top: David Mitchell, via Quartzy, Max Touhey, Mackenzie Goldberg, Patrick Sisson, Sarah Balcombe, Sarah Balcombe,  Blaine Brownell)

A New Look for an Old Soul

Visitors to New York’s Museum Mile may like to take a wander through the newly designed third floor of the Jewish Museum at 1109 Fifth Avenue. Following its recent Modigliani exhibit and its Pierre Chareau exhibition, last year, that was orchestrated by Diller + Scofidio, the choice of starchitect was key to decoding the presentation of their somewhat weighty permanent collection.

Enter Calvin Tsao, of Tsao & McKown, who opened up the space establishing a visual link to Central Park and Stagmeister & Walsh who did the rebranding. Entitled “Scenes From the Collection” there is no attempt to overwhelm. Instead the collection has been curated minimally, with a “less is more” rotating philosophy, so as to remain fresh, fanciful, interactive, and critically, more Instagrammable.

Stylistic tribute has been made to international galleries abroad. As in the Tate Modern and Musee d’Orsay, the beauty of the original building, in this case the 1908 built home of Felix M. Warburg, is celebrated with its period charm restored. The mix of old and new is paramount not just in the architecture but in the collection itself, which  has been divided into seven galleries.

The first, “Accumulations”  provides a welcome interactive element with stereoscopes enabling 3D type views of last century Israel depicted in hand-drawn postcard sized twin images. Mostly traditional ceremonial objects are displayed in “Taxonomies”, while images and objects referencing the Holocaust are shown in  “Masterpieces and Curiosities”. A more modern take on  “Personas” shows the work of Man Ray and Cindy Sherman, with exploration of the Star of David and its symbolism explored through the art of contemporary artists in “Signs and Symbols”.  With a viewing station “Television and Beyond” attempts to catch visitors up to the present whilst examining the portrayal and impact of Jews in the media.

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Yet it is in the “Constellations” gallery that the real dialogue between modern art and heritage takes it rightful place.  Tradition and loss, have so far been presented. Continuity and the precarious balance of living with heritage is what is examined here. Mel Bochner’s The Joys of Yiddish, (above) is a true gem, contrasting bizarrely with Camille Pissarro’s Portail L’Eglise Saint-Jacques à Dieppe.




Arlene Shechet’s emotionally packed Travel Light, (seen above with Eva Hesse’s Untitled) is a restrained gypsum and resin reference to the generational value of familial objects interlinked with identity, escape and continuity.

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Framing this travel bag are displays of 60s feminism with painting by Joan Snyder (Hard Sweetness, above) and Eva Hesse as well as the more recent “Seder” by Nicole Eisenman.

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Hannah Wilke’s series Venus Pareve (above), is presented alongside the subtle relief of the Star of David in the rainbow colors of  Ross Bleckner’s expressed duality in his “Double Portrait (Gay Flag)” (below).

Ross Bleckner, Double Portrait (Gay Flag), Oil on canvas, 1993

wileyStanding proudly in its vivid lure, the ornate quality and frame of Alios Itzhak (above) by Kehinde Wiley from his World Stage:Israel exhibition at the Jewish Museum, 2012, mimics the intricate dark woodwork of the adjacent 19th century ark from Sioux City, Iowa. Both share the iconography of carved ten commandments, centrally placed at their top and both challenge ideas of memory and continuity. Wiley’s work goes further in portraying a proud, deliberate, noble element, typical to his work, yet it is the deliberate homoerotic element that is glossed over here, as is the subject of the integration and acceptance of Ethiopian Jews in modern Israeli society. The Jewish Museum could do well applying the same level of admirable critique to its curated content as it has done to its newly renovated galleries.

Still slightly disparate with unusual but exciting juxtapositions “Scenes From a Collection”  has promised a 6 month cycle which will undoubtedly keep the galleries and our appetite fresh as well as allowing for further curatorial experimentation. That is to be applauded.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Winter Wonderland

By Sarah Balcombe

As a “bomb cyclone” barrages New York and New England with some of the coldest temperatures on record, Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept of an Arizona winter retreat seems not just sensible but positively prophetic. And so it is. Reinforcing Wright’s architectural ingenuity and his continued relevance, nothing screams “shelter” more than his iconic Taliesin West.


Still functioning as an architecture school, with daily tours for visitors, this remarkable mid-century collection of modern structures sits lightly in the landscape. Wright bought this 600 acre plot in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1937, for $2000, with the profit from his Falling Water project, under his doctor’s recuperation advice to avoid Wisconsin winters, following a bout of pneumonia.


Unique in its concept of desert building, Taliesin West is essentially home-brewed-by-Wright. It is an an organic series of experimental structures that he and his apprentices designed and built in the hostile Arizona desert.


Surrounded by snakes, cacti and a distinct lack of water, the complex was deliberately situated in a region of petrogylyphs, ancient writing symbols by Southwest Native Americans. This petroglyph (above) has been positioned by the entrance to Taliesin West. Wright used its orthogonal spiral symbol as his motif for the estate.

Wright was fascinated by the land’s spiritual origins, as well as its water possibilities and eventually succeeded in  locating an underground river 500ft below the site. This allows for the welcoming triangular pools and alledgedly helped to appease Wright’s fear of fire, following  fire tragedies, at his original Talisein home in Wisconsin.


Evolving over a twenty year period with simple modern shelters subsequently added by students, Taliesin West demonstrates an innovative use of space and materials within the desert landscape, exuding a therapeutic and tranquil serenity.


Wright’s office and studio (above), modest sleeping quarters and a long, low living room (below), with built-in-sofas and custom-made chairs, all have controlled views out with carefully designed slotted openings, that were only reluctantly glazed five years after completion. With low overhangs and canvas roofs, the intention had been to keep these sheltered slots open, contributing to the tent-like relaxed feel of the place and its sense of genius loci.



Using local and natural materials, Wright invented a compound cement slurry to set the flat-edged natural boulders into the walls and floors (see above), making them easier to manoeuvre into position before setting. His environmentally responsive, green architecture also uses reflective aluminium surfaces in the bathrooms to reduce lighting requirements (below).


It also employs simple acoustic principles of plywood under the stage of the cabaret/ lecture theatre, complete with piano niche (see below)  and utilizes pre-stressing, strengthening techniques for the store-room ceiling.



Frank Lloyd Wright had a separate sleeping and napping area (above) adjacent to his wife, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright. Her sleeping quarters, with writing bureau, are shown below.


These experiments in controlled views through level changes (below), is a technique later employed by modernist architects such as Sir Leslie Martin in his Royal Festival Hall, London and his Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal.


Similar aspects of Taliesin West’s design and construction were used by Wright in his subsequent projects. The same low stair configuration, prairie style overhangs, vast ceilings and angled openings (glazed in this case) can be seen in the Olfelt home in Minnesota. Currently on sale for $1.3m, it is being sold by the original owners, the couple who originally commissioned Wright to design their home (images below).

(Olfelt home, Minnesota images by Coldwell Banker)

Whilst brick was used instead of desert boulders, the angled roof and canopies, Wright’s characteristic Cherokee Red floors and stone fireplaces echo those at Taliesin West. They also give this midwest property its mid-century flair. As one of Wright’s final works, it is interesting to see how some of his desert experiments are adapted and applied here, once again demonstrating his design genius.

All original furniture is included. For the full effect, just add snow.