Christo & Jeanne-Claude

Christo Vladimirov Javacheff died on 31 May 2020 in New York City, a decade after his spouse Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon also died there: they were astrological twins (both born on 13 June 1935) and for over 50 years also creative partners jointly conceiving, planning, financing and executing unique environmental installations.

The work was almost always temporary. Christo: ‘I am an artist, and I have to have courage … Do you know that I don’t have any artworks that exist? They all go away when they’re finished… We borrow space and create gentle disturbances for a few days… Only the preparatory drawings and collages are left, giving my works an almost legendary character… I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain.’

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects continually used the environment as both ‘canvas’ and ‘gallery’, taking their work to the public (rather than the reverse). Their projects were proudly self-financed, which raised the inevitable question of how they managed to generate income to support their practice and living costs. The very nature of their creations prevented them from raising money by selling to the public tickets to see the results of their transformations of the public environment. Skilful use of intellectual property rights was one answer to income generation, such as: selling to photographers and film-makers and broadcasters exclusive licences to record their artwork/events; and/or selling their related drawings, collages, works on paper, photographs, film of their events, and the like. An obvious parallel business model is the selling of licences by a rock/pop band for exclusive media access to performances, and related merchandising.

Realisation of their works took decades, and they intentionally set themselves huge challenges: technical, financial, managerial, bureaucratic – and legal. Each work was effectively a legal and business obstacle course; artwork that intentionally embraced the law as a tool for its creation. Fortunately for posterity, both artists spoke openly about their working methods, leaving important and interesting precedents for new approaches to practice.

In the early years of their collaborative practice Christo and Jeanne-Claude credited authorship of their work only to Christo, to facilitate ‘dealings with their brand’ and recognising prejudices in the contemporary art world at that time against female artists. But from around 1994 they insisted on reattribution of their past works into their joint names, at the behest of their son, who referred to the then recent ‘coming out’ of several other teams of 1960s and 1970s artist-spouses such as Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Nancy and Ed Keinholz, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen.

Reattribution of their joint authorship exemplifies not only Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s realisation that the law could be a key medium for use in their creative palette, but also demonstrates their astute grasp of the business dimensions of their artistic practice that they needed to employ in the realisation of their extraordinarily complex and costly ideas, which were entirely self-financed. Jeanne-Claude explained: ‘The only way to work in total freedom is to pay for it. When you accept outside money, someone wants to tell you what to do. So we fund each of our projects with our own money – through sales of Christo’s preparatory drawings, collages and early works. But we never know if they will sell fast enough to meet the expenses.’

In furtherance of these ways of working and to demonstrate their business credentials, the partners created a business model as early as 1969 by establishing a separate legal entity, the CVJ Corporation, through which they ran their practice. Christo explained: ‘My Marxist education clearly helped me in using the resources of capitalism for my own ends.’. And Jeanne-Claude added: ‘But the reason for founding the corporation was mainly practical. For us it is very important to have a cash flow. We can pay for the early engineering studies for our projects because those bills come in sporadically. But when we start to hire workers to install the project, we have to meet the payroll every Friday. We can’t count on art sales to come in on time.’

Christo and Jeanne-Claude chose to avoid appointing art market professionals as their agents and dealers to promote and safeguard sale prices of associated two-dimensional representations and versions of their ideas. But with awareness of the obvious need to generate income to support future realisations, they decided to embrace within their business model their own marketing and selling strategies and tactics. According to Christo ‘This is why we are the biggest owner of our work. We keep it in our storehouses, the main one being in Basel, Switzerland, where we have our own curator. When CVJ Corporation negotiates a credit line with a bank, these works of art serve as collateral. So they enable us to pay for our projects.’ Jeanne-Claude added: ‘Christo not only frames his drawings himself, but we also sell the works and sometimes buy them back – either because we regret having sold them cheaply in the first place, or because it’s a bargain. There’s also a concern if the price goes too high – we don’t want a flood of Christos on the secondary market because it will affect the prices on the primary market.’

Moreover, Christo and Jeanne-Claude also had sufficient understanding and insight to realise that their environmental installations were imbued not only with a potential strength – mass spectator attraction to viewing a short-lived event – but also a latent weakness: the general public’s freedom of access. In other words, it would be practically impossible to prevent people making films and taking photographs of their installations to record for themselves a unique event that would soon disappear from view. And the artists evidently knew that laws in most countries permitted the so-called ‘freedom of panorama’. However, they also knew – as advised by their expert art lawyers – that films and photographs of their public installations were not permitted by laws in most countries to be used for commercial purposes without the artists’ consent. Such activity was likely to be judged in law as being unfair use in violation of the artists’ copyright in their ephemeral installations. For example, The Pont Neuf Wrapped (1975–85) was executed in Paris for 14 days in September 1985. The artists successfully sued two companies in France for violating copyright through commercial use of films and photographs of the installation without the artists’ permission.

Let us now hope that we shall see the realisation of the currently unfinished project in Paris, L‘Arc de Triomphe Wrapped, which Christo planned to be exhibited in September 2021, as a fitting completion to this remarkable joint practice.

© Henry Lydiate 2020

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.