Give Jeanne-Claude Her Rightful Credit

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Give Jeanne-Claude Her Rightful Credit

Perhaps you have seen that Paris’s iconic Arc de Triomphe — like the Pont Neuf and Berlin’s Reichstag before it — has been wrapped in fabric, the posthumous realization of a project by the artist-couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Perhaps you also noticed, scattered across headlines and social media, the pernicious tendency of journalists to attribute this work to Christo alone, though L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped is the product of the duo’s decades-long collaboration and a dream both of them shared.

The Arc de Triomphe, Paris wrapped by Christo and Jeanne-Claude(2021) (Image by Chabe01 via Wikimedia Commons)

If you didn’t notice the mistake — in headlines published by the Wall Street Journal and the LA Times, as well as on Instagram where the project’s official hashtag is #christoparis — I wouldn’t be surprised. This is by no means the first time one half of the artist pair — notably, the female half — has been left out of the equation. Initially the couple themselves did this. Though their collaboration began in the 1960s (their first project was realized in 1961, and then they married in 1962), it wasn’t until 1994, when they retroactively labeled all previous public work as authored by both artists, that the collaborative moniker “Christo and Jeanne-Claude” was made official.

Though the world has had a good 27 years to get used to it, the artists’ website recognizes the continued potential for confusion. It spells it out for anyone who can’t wrap their minds around art made by equal contributions of two people of different genders: “All the early works … as well as all preparatory drawings, collages, and scale models are works by ‘Christo’ only …. However, all projects and indoor installations, both realized and non-realized, are works by ‘Christo and Jeanne-Claude’.”

Excluding Jeanne-Claude from headlines and descriptions is, therefore, factually inaccurate. (Would you ever talk about Gilbert without mentioning George?) If the media treated this oversight as such, the error would be rectified immediately. A retraction would be issued and an apology made. But the fact that this error keeps appearing — in some of the world’s largest (and most meticulously edited) papers — is an indication that giving deserved credit to women is not in their style guide.

Unfortunately, New York’s hometown paper is no exception. When Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, the New York Times published an obituary that cast her in the studio assistant role, a mistake only made more stark when reading Christo’s recent obituary from 2020. Though the Times is careful to point out Jeanne-Claude as “wife and collaborator,” the writer of both pieces, William Grimes, doesn’t seem fully convinced of this, since the wording of each obituary does not express equality. Christo’s largely confers credit to the artist alone (referring to “The Gates” as “Christo’s” project), while Jeanne-Claude’s continually specifies joint spousal effort, labeling their work, somewhat awkwardly, “the art of her and her husband.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, “The Gates,””(2005) a site-specific work of art installed in Central Park, New York City (image by Carol M. Highsmith, via Wikimedia Commons)

At the time of Jeanne-Claude’s death, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg — no doubt thinking he was paying the artist a compliment — released a statement saying that “The Gates,” a 2005  installation mounted in the city’s Central Park, “would never have happened without Jeanne-Claude.” While this is technically correct, saying so is like saying Simon and Garfunkel wasn’t possible without Paul Simon. In other words, it’s utterly and completely obvious.

Sadly, though by no means surprisingly, there is precedence for this female erasure. Women have been and continue to be the executors of the invisible, unpaid, unaccredited labor that makes much of the world run smoothly. Globally, our work hours are worth trillions of dollars per year. Wives, very often, make their husbands’ careers possible, through a variety of support:  from childcare to coaching, encouragement to straight up collaboration. Artists’ wives (who are often artists themselves) are no exception.

Artists’ wives have acted as studio assistants, advocates, babysitters, and breadwinners, some even giving up their own practices for the sake of their husbands’ work. History has not recorded the full extent of these women’s influence, and we may never know the full scope of the impact they have made on the history of art.

But in the case of Jeanne-Claude, we do know. Her impact is evident as it rises from the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle, covering one of Paris’s most recognizable monuments. It’s ironic, however, that despite how large this work looms, she has been diminished.

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