In Conversation with curator Elena Geuna. On Christo: Early Works.

Words by

Jessica Wan

In Conversation with curator Elena Geuna. On Christo: Early Works.

Gagosian, with 19 galleries worldwide, has developed Gagosian Open, a new and exciting initiative of nomadic exhibitions in experimental and non-gallery spaces. The inaugural show in a Grade II-Listed Georgian house in Spitalfields explores the cultural history of the area in relation to the fascinating journey of Christo, an artist who, as an immigrant, fled communist-ruled Bulgaria in 1956 and settled in New York in the early 1970s after traversing Prague, Vienna, Geneva, and Paris. As part of the exhibition opening, Lucinda Chua performed improvised sound pieces using voice, cello, and effects units in response to Christo’s early works and the unique historic building. Elena Geuna the first curator for Gagosian Open gives us a deeper insight into her curatorial process and the importance of these early works of Christo.

The exhibition garnered an enthusiastic public reception, attracting around 14,000 visitors during its two-week duration. This surge in attendance not only marked a significant milestone for the gallery but also facilitated an exploration of uncharted territories and the establishment of connections with fresh audiences. Stefan Ratibor, a senior director at Gagosian, elaborated on the exhibition's impact and resonance in an interview with The Financial Times: “The Christo exhibition inaugurated Gagosian Open, our new series of off-site projects. Rather than squeezing artists’ ideas into our existing footprint or a particular schedule, the program allows for greater freedom and an opportunity to present remarkable artworks in unusual contexts.”

Jessica Wan: At 4 Princelet Street in London, for the first iteration of the newly launched series Gagosian Open, you have curated “Christo Early Works”, a selection of works by the artist from the late 50s till the 70s. Could you tell me about your first encounter with Christo’s work and these early pieces?

Elena Geuna: I had the privilege of meeting Christo years ago, when we worked together on a project that, unfortunately, did not come to life. Our encounter allowed me to witness firsthand his extraordinary creative energy and unwavering commitment to pushing artistic boundaries. Having long admired Christo for his innovative approach to art, it was a unique and enriching experience to delve into this exhibition of early works. When Gagosian approached me with the idea of curating an exhibition of his work in this unique space, I gladly accepted. The opportunity to showcase a selection of his early works in this context felt particularly significant. I believe these works, created during his formative years, provide such a captivating glimpse into the evolution of his artistic vision!

Christo: Early Works; curated by Elena Geuna, 2023, Artwork © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation, Photo: Lucy Dawkins, Courtesy Gagosian

JW: Writer Israel Zangwill coined the term 'melting point' to express colliding cultures as a result of migration when writing novels based on the tension between different ethnic groups living in the Spitalfields area where the exhibition takes place. First constructed in 1723, 4 Princelet Street has been home to successive migrant families, including the Huguenots, the first refugees in the UK. Christo's personal history as a political refugee plays a significant role in his practice. In what ways does this manifest in the works in the exhibition?

EG: As London’s population grew in the early eighteenth century, housing developments on what was then the city’s fringe gathered pace. The houses on Princelet Street were home to working Londoners and migrants, particularly the Huguenots, who had been fleeing religious persecution in France since the 1680s and brought industrialised silk-weaving to the neighbourhood. By the 1840s, the area was in decline and witnessed a ‘melting pot’ as you suggest. Later on, Spitalfields became home to significant Jewish and then Bangladeshi communities. The history of No. 4 Princelet Street itself, as a house that has been home to migrant families, is echoed by Christo's personal experience: his stateless past as a political refugee, his multiple relocations before settling in Paris in 1958, and later, his permanent move to New York. He referred to himself as "l'étranger”, an eternal wanderer…The works on display have been selected precisely to represent these ideas of motion and transience. Several early works from this period by Christo incorporate suitcases and a sense of precariousness and migration. Wrapped Perambulator, 1962, and Dolly, 1964, welcome the viewer on the ground floor, together with Package on a Luggage Rack, 1962, all referring to the transportation of objects, changing homes and migration. These works embody the core theme of this exhibition, suggesting a silent yet explicit dialogue between Christo’s Wrapped Objects series and the character of the house itself.

JW: The artworks presented at 4 Princelet Street span from the late 50s till the 70s, and many are shown for the first time. What artistic influences do you see running through Christo's early works?

EG: In a 1982 interview I read, Christo himself delves into how the artistic milieu of that era significantly shaped his artist research, emphasising the pivotal role played by artists engaged in imbuing painting with materiality. In the interview, he notes that back then there was an interest in the paintings’ surface and that the two key figures were Antoni Tàpies and Alberto Burri, whose works were very much linked to Dubuffet indeed…Dubuffet was of particular interest to Christo ever since he first encountered his work back in 1957, when he visited museums in Switzerland. This influence is particularly visible in Christo's Cratère series, works made by superimposing layers of paint, sand, and glue. For instance, the work Cratère (1959), welcoming visitors to the ground floor of the exhibition, showcases Christo's preoccupation with surface and the material's qualities. During these years, Lucio Fontana, whom Christo encountered at an exhibition in Germany, was also exploring innovative pictorial forms…

Christo: Early Works; curated by Elena Geuna, 2023, Artwork © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation, Photo: Lucy Dawkins, Courtesy Gagosian
JW: How do you feel these early works inform his later series of installations created by the act of wrapping monuments and historical buildings?

EG: Christo's artistic innovation and audacious creativity can be witnessed throughout the entirety of his remarkable career. His unique and transformative approach is vividly exemplified in the early works, everyday objects veiled in fabric, secured with meticulous rope arrangements, and then coated with resin to solidify the entire structure. Christo elevated the mundane to the extraordinary…As Christo progressed in his artistic journey, these early explorations with fabric and rope laid the groundwork for his ambitious undertakings—monumental installations where iconic monuments and historical buildings were enveloped in vast swaths of fabric. The lessons learned from transforming everyday objects informed the grander scale of his later works, as the act of wrapping continued to be a powerful medium through which he challenged perceptions, engaged in a poetic dialogue with the environment, and left an enduring imprint on the landscape of contemporary art.We see it clearly when Christo moves to New York in 1964, visibly influenced by the towering verticality and the imposing and expansive spaces of the city. The dynamic urban landscape of New York brought Christo's work towards a more immersive and environmental direction.The act of wrapping became, in Christo's oeuvre, a metaphorical gesture to challenge preconceived notions and to invite contemplation on the interplay between concealment and revelation. I believe Christo’s work is visual poetry …

JW: Christo's early sculptural works involved wrapping everyday objects with fabric or polyethylene. How does this approach translate Christo's creative response to domestic environments?

EG: With his early works, Christo elevated them from the mundane to the extraordinary, imparting a sense of mystery and creating timeless works of art. The wrapped objects, whether exhibited in the pristine environment of a museum or situated within the intimate confines of a home, acquire qualities that capture and communicate emotions.

Christo: Early Works; curated by Elena Geuna, 2023, Artwork © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation, Photo: Lucy Dawkins, Courtesy Gagosian
JW: 4 Princelet Street comprises four levels, with Christo’s work taking over the entire building. Walking through the space, the works and the building seem to have a temporal relationship. How does the architecture and historical significance of 4 Princelet Street enhance the overall experience of viewing Christo's early works?

EG: This exhibition underscores how the interplay between artworks and the architectural context of their display can reshape visitors' perceptions, enabling a deeper comprehension of the works themselves. Visitors are invited to explore the four floors of the house, from the entrance to the top-floor attic. The exploration of the house goes in parallel with the discovery of Christo’s artworks.On the ground floor, we find the essence of Christo’s work, where the dialogue between the works is enhanced by the presence of an indoor window, overlooking the white works - such as Jerry Can (1961) - that Christo made in Paris, suggesting the lightness and thrill of exploration that characterise the discovery of a new city. In the main room we find Dolly (1964), the first artwork that Christo made in New York which – with its verticality – is evocative of the artist’s research on dimensions developed in dialogue with the American city. Throughout the house, Christo's works are thoughtfully installed, taking advantage of the architectural features and panelling of the interior. On the first floor, Package on a Luggage Rack (1962) recalls again the idea of movement, as its original placement could potentially be on top of a car. The second floor, moving to the more private areas of the house, evokes a more intimate atmosphere, displaying objects that belong to family and friends, such as JC’s wrapped shoes, the Show Case (1963) in the bathroom, which reminds us of a cabinet mysteriously hiding perhaps jewellery or medicines, or the Wrapped Bottle and Cans (1958-60), sitting on the shelf and in the door-cabinet as if they always had inhabited the space. This arrangement creates a profound yet serene dialogue between the artworks and the living space, where time appears to stand still.In the attic rooms, the setting becomes even more private and personal: Package (1963) - whose shape is suggestive of a typewriter - leaves us wondering what it is actually concealing, letting us dream of a poet or a writer that might have inhabited the rooms at 4 Princelet Street in the past.

Christo: Early Works; curated by Elena Geuna, 2023, Artwork © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation, Photo: Lucy Dawkins, Courtesy Gagosian

Elena Geuna is an independent curator, author, and art advisor. Curatorial projects include Fontana: Luce e Colore, Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, Italy (2008); Arte Povera in Moscow, Multimedia Art Museum,Moscow (2011); Freedom Not Genius: Works from Damien Hirsts Murderme Collection, Pinacoteca Agnelli, Turin, Italy (2012–13; traveled to Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, 2013–14); Rudolf Stingel, Palazzo Grassi, Venice (2013); Sigmar Polke, Palazzo Grassi, Venice (2016); Damien Hirst: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, Venice (2017); and Lucio Fontana: Retrospective, Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow (2019–20). She cocurated Jeff Koons, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy (2003); Jeff Koons: Versailles, Château de Versailles, France (2008); and Jeff Koons Mucem. Works from the Pinault Collection, Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, Marseille, France (2021).

Jessica Wan is an independent curator and writer. Her recent curatorial research focuses on visual artists who engage with ecology, diaspora, feminism and contemporary non-western practice. She has lectured and facilitated programmes at Chelsea College of Arts, Tate and TrAIN.

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From Top: CHRISTO Dolly, 1964 Wood crate on casters, tarpaulin, polyethylene, fabric, ropes, and straps 72 1/16 x 39 15/16 x 32 1/4 inches (183 x 101.5 x 82 cm) © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation Photo: Eeva-Inkeri Courtesy Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation and Gagosian, Exterior view, 4 Princelet Street, London E1 6QH Photo: Lucy Dawkins Courtesy Gagosian, CHRISTO J-C's Wrapped Shoes, 1962 A pair of leather heeled shoes, stockings, polyethylene, twine and rubber cord 6 x 10 1/4 x 6 inches (15.2 x 26 x 15.2 cm) © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation Photo: Eeva-Inkeri Courtesy Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation and Gagosian, CHRISTO Package on a luggage rack, 1962 Tarpaulin, rubber-coated rope, and metal luggage rack 24 13/16 x 59 1/16 x 42 1/8 inches (63 x 150 x 107 cm) © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation Photo: Eeva-Inkeri Courtesy Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation and Gagosian, CHRISTO Applique Empaquetée, 1963-1981 Brass candelabra, polyethylene, and rope, mounted on velvet, with an antique wooden frame 34 1/16 x 29 1/8 x 7 1/16 inches (86.5 x 74 x 18 cm) © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation Photo: Eeva-Inkeri Courtesy Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation and Gagosian.