World-renowned artists Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude, whose large-scale, temporary outdoor artworks have redefined the meaning and democratic possibilities of public art, were honored by Occidental College at a public ceremony February 23.
"Today we are proud to honor your courage and integrity as artists, your ability to conjure the ephemeral into the iconic, and for inspiring, outraging, and fascinating the world for 50 years," said President Jonathan Veitch before he and Trustee Eileen Brown '73 awarded the artists honorary degrees in front of a large Thorne Hall audience.
In introducing Christo, Veitch hailed the artists' work as "nothing short of glorious: One discovers (or rather rediscovers) the play of wind and light, form and nature." The long bureaucratic maze that must be negotiated for each work to be realized creates "a debate about intentions and meaning, discussions about art and its transformative capacities," he said. "Christo and Jeanne-Claude have made that debate the very essence of their art."
After a brief speech, Christo showed a slideshow of his work and then took questions from the audience. The day before the ceremony, Occidental students in associate professor Mary Beth Heffernan's art class had Christo all to themselves for an hour of give and take.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude's installations in urban and rural environments rely on the use of fabric and textiles and combine elements of painting, sculpture, and architecture. The temporary nature of their art--they wrapped the Reichstag in fabric and set up 3,100 blue and yellow umbrellas in Japan and California--mirrors the temporary nature of human existence.
"The temporary nature of our projects is a very important aesthetic decision," Christo told Heffernan's class. "Each one is a once-in-a-lifetime piece. It has immediacy, fragility. That uniqueness is very important. People are attracted to unique things. They like to know that tomorrow it will be gone. That sentiment is at the core of our art."
Each project, he continued, is an "unforgettable, irreplaceable moment."
Christo and Jeanne-Claude's current project, "Over the River," would suspend translucent panels of fabric over almost six miles of the Arkansas River in eastern Colorado, visible to rafters as well as motorists on U.S. Highway 50 traveling between Canon City and Salida. "I like the fluidity of water in contrast to the static energy of the land," Christo told Heffernan's class. "The fluidity of the fabric mirrors the fluidity of the water." Like some of their other projects, the proposed installation has generated controversy, which Christo says is part of the artistic process.
Veitch, who in his 2009 inaugural speech called for Occidental to participate fully in what he called Los Angeles' "artistic ferment," was able to bring Christo to campus through the good offices of his father-in-law Peter Mott, a friend of the artists since 1975.
Born in Bulgaria as Christo Valdimirov Javacheff, Christo met Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon in Paris in 1958. They became artistic collaborators three years later, and in 1964 moved to New York, where Jeanne-Claude died in November 2009.
Past recipients of Occidental honorary degrees have included painter Richard Diebenkorn, photographer Ansel Adams, architect Frank Gehry, musicians Ray Charles and Jackson Browne, conductor Zubin Mehta, and dancer-choreographer Bella Lewitzky.