Copley bequest brings artist Christo to Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla
By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
Christo, the world-famous wrap artist, came to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla on Feb. 1. He wasn’t doing any wrapping here, but he gave a lecture before the opening of an impressive exhibit of his works, mostly from the collection of the late David Copley.
Copley, who died in 2012, inherited the newspaper chain founded by his adoptive father, James Copley, and was publisher of the San Diego Union-Tribune from 1997 to 2009. A longtime La Jollan, he was a generous booster of the arts, one of MCASD’s most valued trustees and patrons, and the most prolific collector of Christo’s work in the country.
To honor his life and legacy, the museum is presenting “X-TO+J-C,” a showing of more than 50 pieces from Christo’s 50-year collaboration with his wife, Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009.
Christo, born in Bulgaria, and Jeanne-Claude, born in Morocco, met in Paris in their early 20s, and discovered that they shared, besides a taste for public art, the same birthday: June 13, 1935.
Their huge-scale projects, like “Wrapped Reichstag” installed in Berlin (1971-95) and the bright-orange “The Gates,” which transformed New York’s Central Park (1979-2005), involved decades of elaborate planning followed by months of trouble-fraught installation. The works originally appeared under Christo’s name alone, but were subsequently credited to both Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Together, they changed the way people looked at familiar objects and places.
According to Jill Dawsey, MCASD’s associate curator, who helped organize the exhibit, Christo started out as a society portrait painter, in Paris.
“That was his day job, and Jeanne-Claude’s family commissioned him to do her portrait. From the beginning, she helped conceive and execute the works, but the drawings were all his,” Dawsey said. “The draughtsmanship, the technique, of the drawings is incredible, and many of them incorporate maps, data and photos. They were used to sell the work, to convince potential patrons that the idea was worth funding.”
“X-TO+J-C” includes many drawings and collages, and several wrapped pieces, among them an early portrait of Jeanne-Claude. Two of the pieces were donated by Christo, in honor of Copley, his patron and friend of so many years. But most of the works are from Copley’s collection.
“The work he collected represents all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s major pieces,” Dawsey said. “So it’s a very good overview of their career, and it shows the breadth of what they did over the decades, not just the wrapping, but everything else.”
Few artists today enjoy Christo’s level of popularity, and fewer still are known by their first name alone.
“It does make him seem more of a rock star,” Dawsey said. “Despite the controversial nature of many of the large-scale works (two people were killed during 1991’s installation and removal of “The Umbrellas” in the California desert), they’re seen by millions of people, and the interesting thing is: they’re temporary. They take years and years to realize, and they’re only on view for a matter of weeks.”
The big exception is the Abu Dhabi Mastaba, one of the works-in-progress Christo describes in his lecture.
Originally conceived in 1977, this will be his first large-scale, permanent project. Made from 410,000 multi-colored oil barrels, it will be the world’s largest sculpture. It will also bring Christo’s career full-circle, since one of the earliest projects he did with Jeanne-Claude was a barricade of oil barrels, blocking a narrow Paris street.
Christo will also talk about another work-in-progress, a project for the Arkansas River in Colorado. Conceived in 1992, it is finally close to being approved.
“It will be fascinating to hear about all the negotiations behind the works, because that’s part of the works themselves,” Dawsey said. “The pieces reveal the physical world around us in a new way, but the complicated negotiations reveal the hidden mechanisms of how society actually works.”
The Copley-Cristo Connection
■ Hugh Davies, director/CEO of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, talked to La Jolla Light recently about the Copley-Christo connection. Davies’ MCASD directorship was endowed by David Copley in 1998.
“What was special about David was that he was so much more than just a collector; he was a true patron of artists, and a longtime friend of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. He first met them in the late 1970s, and continued that friendship till the day he died.
His passion for their work gave him the greatest pleasure, and I was fortunate to be able to share that pleasure. We’d fly out to the trial sites of their projects, where they’d be testing their materials and designs, and we’d spend the day, have lunch with them, and give ourselves a chance to see the world through Christo’s eyes. Many collectors are just passive accumulators of transferable goods, but not David; he had a real rapport with artists, and was always there, with admiration and support for their work.”
If you go
What: ‘X-TO+J-C: Christo and Jeanne-Claude Featuring Works from the Bequest of David C. Copley’
When: Feb. 2-April 6, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Thursdays-Tuesdays; to 7 p.m. third Thursdays;
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego,
700 Prospect St., La Jolla
Admission: $5-$10, free 5-7 p.m. third Thursdays, and to members
Contact: (858) 454-3541
Film Screening: 3-5 p.m. March 1. ‘Umbrellas’ (1994), a documentary by noted filmmakers Albert and David Maysles that follows Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s two-color, two-country installation of umbrellas in Japan and California
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