He was known for his grand installation projects, like 1983's Surrounded Islands which wrapped 11 islands along Biscayne Bay in bright pink fabric, and for his artistic integrity and ingenuity that defined him as one of the late great auteurs of his time. Ever since Art Basel landed in Miami in 2001, the Magic City has been a bastion of the fine arts. But none of that cultural legacy might have come to pass were it not to for the work of Christo.
Christo, who was known solely by his first name throughout his career, was born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff in Bulgaria in 1935. His artistic oeuvre was defined by his collaborations with his wife Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009. Their creative partnership spanned the latter half of the 20th century and yielded some of the most strikingly nuanced works of monumental installation art in the history of the genre.
Along with his wife Jeanne-Claude, Christo not only made use of megalithic structures that predated their works — they made a point of choosing structures with extraordinary meaning to build their narratives upon. From the Reichstag building in Berlin and Paris' Pont Neuf to Central Park in New York City, Christo and Jeanne-Claude left their indelible marks on some of the most significant edifices and public spaces of the modern era sheathed in wraps of gold and silver and ochre.
Among their works that would become synonymous with their grand designs was the Surrounded Islands project here in Miami. After months of experimentation, fabrication, and deliberation with local legislators and environmental protection groups, Christo and Jeanne-Claude banded together with local workers to wrap the islands in Biscayne Bay in pink polypropylene fabric in a display that would come to be one of the most singularly iconic images of the city.
As Rene Morales, who curated the 35-year retrospective at the Pérez Art Museum of Miami, put it, "Sometimes we can take for granted the things that we drive past every day, and so much of their work is about making us rethink the familiar." Not only did Christo and Jeanne-Claude change the way Miamians saw their own city, but they changed the way that the world at large saw Miami.
For many of those who attended the Christo retrospective back in October 2018, Surrounded Islands was scarcely more than memory that their parents had imposed upon them or a vision that they'd seen framed in waiting rooms around the city for years. But for those who'd known the man or who'd worked to secure the pink plastic rafts of fabric around the islands, he was known to be something more to this city.
Christo's art not only gave a sense of legitimacy to the Magic City that would propel it to the arts hub it is today — it gave the people of Miami a sense of something they could fall in love with about their hometown.
When New Times had the opportunity to interview Christo ahead of his Surrounded Islands retrospective in 2018, he was exactly what you would hope for him to be: eccentric, optimistic, and wonderfully frank. He was a man who, after decades of renowned artwork, had never lost his sense of the magic and mystique of the art he brought to life.
Christo was one of a kind, an artist who brought prestige and intrigue to Miami, who made so much of the world regard itself with renewed eyes. He was a legend in his own age, a legend who helped make our city what it is today, and he will be sorely missed.