Meeting the Wrappers

A chance encounter with Christo and Jeanne Claude, the artists who once planned to wrap up one of Vienna’s Flakturm in a giant gauze

Christo and Jeanne Claude

Christo and Jeanne Claude in Vienna to dedicate a commemorative stamp | Photo Courtesy of MAK

A Wednesday evening in mid April: The weather was unseasonably mild, warm enough even to sit out at Skopik and Lohn, the 2nd District bistro where I had reserved a table for a dinner interview with Australian poet John Mateer.

Walking up the Leopoldsgasse, the globe lamps along the façade shed a soft glow over the wooden café tables spread across the broad sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Most were occupied and alive with conversation, faces bright from the wine, features sharpened in the lengthening shadows, laughter blending with noises from the street. The allure was strong, but the fading light would be a problem, so we headed inside, figuring it would also be quieter.

We were shown to a table in the second room, which was empty except for two couples in the far corner. Of course: Every one else had opted for the sidewalk. This would be perfect for a quiet conversation about poetry and politics, I thought, as we settled in for what promised to be a very pleasant evening. We browsed the menu, made our selections and placed our order. The wine arrived, I folded back my note book and the interview began.

We’d covered his childhood in South Africa, his recent reading at the literary society Alte Schmiede and his enthusiasm for the Karmeliterviertel neighborhood we were in – which he called the “East Berlin of Vienna,” clearly meant as a compliment – when a crowd of high volume dinner guests began filing in from the bar area. They entered in mid flight, the flow of words and gesture barely suspended long enough to negotiate the logistics of finding seats at the one long table – that I hadn’t noticed before – and several surrounding smaller ones set up to accommodate them.

This well-turned-out crowd was an event in itself, BoBos first class, in stylish swaths of silk next to clashing plaids, jewels with jeans, stretch bodies and blazers and belted linens a crush of noble wrinkles. Who were they? I scanned the group for a familiar face. What was going on?

Then I noticed Peter Noever, Artistic Director of the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK), dressed all in white, stage-managing from the center of the crowd. He gestured to one group to take the far end, to another, a table to one side; leaned down to a dark haired man his leather jacket open over a collarless shirt, as he ushered a vivid woman with lobster red hair to take a seat beside him. From across the room, he smiled at a table just behind us, where a stooped man in a gray safari jacket his mane of white hair reaching to his shoulders, was just finding a seat.

The crowd settled, and we went back to our interview, now infused with a new tone. Mateer the poet had studied art when he was young, “as a way of creating a sense of history,” he was saying… when suddenly Noever rose and began to speak: “So pleased all of you could come, to wel…” but it was hard to hear in the din and his words got lost amid the hum of voices from other diners. “…as extraordinary for what was imagined, as for…” and then it was lost again.

We lowered our heads and tried to stay focused. Mateer had gotten jaded with the visual art world; it had seemed more about selling than art…

Which made what happened next all the more remarkable, as out of the clatter of china and conviviality, Noever’s voice again emerged, and the lobster-haired woman rose to her feet.

“…with greatest pleasure…. my very old friend, Jeanne Claude!” Dimly, muffled bells sounded in the recesses of my memory. Who was this? Across the room, heads snapped to attention; the noise subsided at least a little, enough to catch her first few words.

“…for the warm welcome Christo and I have received here in Vienna…” And then I remembered.

This was Jeanne Claude, the wife and life-long professional partner of the environmental artist Christo, the one who wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont Neuf in Paris, who set up the Running Fence for 24 miles through Sonoma and Marin counties in California, and a field full of blue Umbrellas in Japan. They were in Vienna to dedicate a postage stamp of yet another project – never realized – of the 1970s to wrap a massive WWII Flakturm (munitions tower) that still stands in the Augarten, to support a MAK project to convert the Flaktürme in the Arenbergpart for  a Contemporary Art Tower complex.

So where was Christo? I followed her eyes, craning my neck fully around to the table just behind me – literally a meter away: It was the man in the gray safari jacket and long white hair. At 74, the years show on his weathered face, but the energy seems undiminished from when I first saw him across a restaurant after the opening of his 2005 Gates installation in Central Park.

Home on a visit, the apartment was just around the corner, and we had walked through the installation again and again as it wound along the park paths, saffron banners blowing overhead.

I had expected to hate it, and instead found myself moved, and then charmed by the way it enveloped the passersby, by the way it transformed the space I knew so well.

Jeanne Claude had finished speaking, and suddenly I wanted to tell Christo about seeing the Gates; I thought he would want to know. Was it just the wine? I decided to risk it. I eased around the table to where he was sitting. He looked up, and I told my story…

Happiness is rare enough; real joy is rarer. But in that moment, that was what I saw on Christo’s face, as he clasped my hand in his two.

“Oh, this was such a wonderful, such a monumental project,” he said, effusive and heartfelt. “Seven years in the making. You know, we wanted so much to be there, at the heart of things in New York.” I spoke of how it had looked and felt to walk it, the curiosity it had evoked.

“Oh, thank you! Thank you,” he said, pressing my hand again. And I was sure he meant it. Glowing, I returned to my seat and to the transformative power of poetry in war time.

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