A daring plan to wrap a Chicago museum raises city ire – and makes art history

June 1, 2012

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By the time he was 33, Christo had wrapped many everyday objects. He took tables and chairs, and shopping carts and oil barrels, covered them in heavy cloth and bound them with rope.

The Bulgarian artist and his late French wife, Jeanne-Claude, are best known for The Gates, the billowing, bright orange arches they installed by the thousands in New York’s Central Park in 2005. But in 1969 they were still struggling to make their mark.

Christo’s curious wrapped parcels didn’t live up to the artist’s ambitions. He wanted to wrap something big, something monumental: a building, preferably in his adopted home of New York City. Christo and Jeanne-Claude self-finance all of their projects through the sale of Christo’s preparatory drawings and scale models, so convincing someone to pay for such a project wasn’t the issue.

Listen to Alison Cuddy and Steve Edwards discuss this topic on Afternoon Shift

During a recent conversation, he ticked off the list of buildings he approached in downtown Manhattan starting in 1961. “Number 2 Broadway, number 20 Exchange Place,” he recalled. “We tried to wrap a building at Times Square.”

They all said no. Christo said he quickly realized that his best hope to wrap a building – his first in North America – would be to wrap a museum, which might be more amenable to his strange proposition.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude approached New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1967. The museum was interested, but Christo said they failed to secure permission for the show from the New York Fire Department or from the museum’s insurance company. 

So New York said no, but Chicago said yes. It was a fateful decision.

The Museum of Contemporary Art was just a year old in the fall of 1968. Its first director, a hip young Dutchman named Jan van der Marck, showed the most avant-garde work he could find. Early on the MCA showed work by groundbreaking artists like the minimalist Dan Flavin, who had his first solo museum show there; he hung alternating pink and gold fluorescent lights in the gallery and called it art. For another show, Art by Telephone, van der Marck invited nearly 45 artists to create work by giving the museum instructions over the phone. The museum then built and installed the pieces based on the instructions they’d received, and sometimes changed the work on a daily basis.

Van der Marck passed away in 2010, but David Katzive, the MCA’s first curator, said his mentor’s daring was controversial – even with some of his own bosses. “They wanted contemporary art in the city,” Katzive said of the museum’s more conservative board of directors. “They were getting that but they were also getting art that was even beyond what they had expected.”

This was certainly true of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s plan to wrap the MCA in chocolate brown fabric. Inside the museum, they would wrap the gallery floors and stairwells, too, in soft white drop cloths. The show would be called Wrap In Wrap Out.

Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 from complications related to a brain aneurysm, but she and her husband collaborated on art projects until her death. In the lead-up to the MCA Chicago show, Christo sent the museum two fabric samples – “for the color.” One was fire resistant and one was labeled “water resistant only.” Christo’s handwritten note instructed the museum to: “light a piece of each and see the difference.”

Clearly, fire safety was on the artist’s mind. But ask whether Chicago’s Fire Department gave the show its blessing, and you get mixed answers.

“Yes, but of course!” Christo insisted. “We cannot do anything in the building before the fire department gives us approval.”

Curator David Katzive remembered things differently. “We didn't think we were doing anything that required permission,” he said. “So [the show] went ahead without any prior requests or clearances.”

True to what Katzive said, we didn’t find a permit in MCA or city records.

These days, Christo’s close friend and Chicago-based lawyer, Scott Hodes, helps the artist navigate a labyrinth of bureaucracy and public opinion. He’s gone so far as to create corporate entities with Christo and Jeanne-Claude as its employees, in order to protect the artists from personal liability. Hodes said compared to later projects such as The Gates, the MCA wasn’t that complicated or dangerous. 

“He had over a thousand people in New York at The Gates. He had monitors to make sure that people didn't get injured,” Hodes said. “There were some projects that were so dangerous that he didn't hire volunteers. The project in Paris to wrap the Pont Neuf was done by professional rock climbers.”

The Chicago installation couldn’t have been more different. Picture Christo, eight art students and David Katzive gathered in front of the museum on a snowy January day. The MCA was located at 237 E. Ontario then, in a one-story building that once housed the offices for Playboy. “It was a shoebox structure – really quite dull and nothing special,” Christo recalled.

The artist and his team were equipped with thousands of feet of rope and thousands of square feet of heavy, dark brown tarpaulin. “It took quite a bit of work to haul [the tarps] up to the roof,” Katzive said. “It was laid out in long piles and pulled up, much as you would raise a curtain.”

Watching the installation that day, an observer from the MCA described the scene this way: “Christo and two men straighten the tarps as they hang. The Curator bites his nails.”

After they secured the fabric to a wooden frame they’d built on the roof, Christo tied the rope in knots around the building – an important part of the project’s aesthetic, according to Katzive.

“Christo would be tying the ropes, pretty much improvising on the spot,” Katzive recalled. “He'd run a line, tie a knot through the middle of it, run rope throughout that – some were real knots, some were just tangles of rope – to create a pattern of the hemp on the canvas, to make it beautiful.”

 

As the team worked, falling snow accumulated in the dark fabric’s many folds. Christo called that “the most rewarding part of the project ... suddenly the entire museum became like a sculpture.

The installation attracted the attention of city dwellers and the national media, who swarmed the site. You can see the commotion in a short film Katzive shot that day. 

“There was a kind of party-like atmosphere,” Katzive remembered. “Passersby on the street would stop and look and watch. . . they kind of picked up on the joyousness of it. We would hear people say things like, ‘They're wrapping the whole building! They're wrapping the whole thing!’”

MCA staff told Christo the show did “beautiful things to people.” Inside the museum, students drew, children turned somersaults, and more than one couple was caught making out under the stairs.

But not every observer was so enthralled. Many art critics and museum directors hated the show. Newspaper accounts described confused onlookers and laughing construction workers. A Mrs. Frank O’Brien of Superior, Wis. wrote the MCA, asking, “Will you kindly advise me who is paying for this insane idea. . . .?”

Then, towards the end of the first day of work, a reporter saw a fire official inspecting a building across the street. The inspector spotted the museum; he was shocked. He stormed over, demanding to know: Where was their permit?

“I’m sitting downstairs in my office and I hear a little hollering,” David Katzive recalled. “The fire department had showed up, telling us that we were in violation of some city code. Jan [van der Marck] asked them, ‘What were we in violation of?’ And they told him ‘You've covered your windows.’ Of course they didn't know, because the building was entirely covered, that there were no windows.”

Museum staff told inspectors they’d left the front door and roof uncovered, as well as a rear delivery entrance. But the fire department wasn’t satisfied with that explanation. “Here we would have potentially had a building in downtown Chicago with a combustible exterior. That’s not something that’s going to make the Fire Prevention Bureau very happy,” said Ed Prendergast, who was an engineer with the bureau at the time.

The inspector who spotted the building that day worked with Prendergast, who thought he and his colleagues were right to be cautious.

“The city has had some fairly catastrophic occurrences,” he said, like the 1967 five-alarm fire that destroyed McCormick Place. After that incident and the deadly 1958 Our Lady of the Angels Church fire, which killed 92 students and three nuns, Prendergast said that former Mayor Richard J. Daley was “obviously not interested in having any more major fires.”

So in stepped the head of the Fire Prevention Bureau. First Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Francis J. Murphy was a “dems and dose” kind of guy, a hands-on boss beloved by his crew. He didn’t just enforce Chicago’s fire code, he helped write parts of it. Now he wanted proof that the heavy brown fabric wrapped around the MCA was firesafe.

Murphy died in 1996, but he left behind a lengthy – and heated – letter exchange with Jan van der Marck and his staff, now housed in the MCA’s archive.

Van der Marck wrote to Chief Murphy and assured him the tarpaulin around the museum posed no threat, so did the Chicago-based canvas supplier, who claimed the fabric had been prepared with “the same treatment used on most high rise buildings” in the city, including the Hancock Building. 

 But those reassurances weren’t enough to sway Chief Murphy.

The next day, Chicago’s art glitterati assembled for a black-tie reception with museum founders, the city’s biggest collectors and Christo. The artist and his wife were dressed to the nines. “I remember [Jeanne-Claude’s] very fancy French boots, from Paris – up to the top of the legs,” Christo said.

Into all that pageantry strode Chief Murphy. He walked straight up to Jan van der Marck and handed him a letter. Reassurances from the canvas company, he wrote, were “self-serving” and “not informative.” He wanted a lab test that proved the fabric was fire-resistant and he wanted it in 48 hours.

The “or else” was implied.

Van der Marck resisted taking down the show. He provided more experts who argued that the test Murphy wanted was outrageous – they’d have to go to New Jersey to find a lab to do it – and that the fabric had the same treatment as canvas used by the U.S. Army.

But weeks passed without a response from the fire chief. Finally, according to curator David Katzive, the museum got an order to take down the show. But by this point it was already closing – and nearly 14,000 people had seen it. 

Visual art tastemakers saw it too, according to lawyer Scott Hodes. “It gave Chicago a different impression in the art world,” he said. “The Chicago art scene was dominated by the Art Institute of Chicago, which would not have done this kind of a show. The MCA coming aboard showed Chicago could be on the leading edge, too.” Christo said Chicago was crucial in his own artistic evolution, giving him the credibility to wrap bigger buildings, like the German parliament in 1995.

Ironically, as Christo’s reputation grew and he was ushered into the canon of contemporary art, the city went from fighting him to courting him. The Morton Salt Company, for example, invited Christo and Jeanne-Claude to wrap a mammoth pile of salt at its South Side facility shortly after the MCA show. Former Mayor Harold Washington was a fan, too, according to Hodes. 

“The mayor and Christo talked about doing a project in Chicago and Mayor Washington basically said to Christo, ‘You decide what you'd like to do and I'll see to it that Chicago welcomes you,’” Hodes said.

Christo hasn’t come back, but other artists have benefitted from the trail he blazed.

As night fell on the corner of State and Adams last week, volunteers used a blowtorch to heat the sidewalk, then laid down huge sheets of red, green and blue vinyl. They were wrapping the intersection – the whole intersection: buildings, streets, lampposts, everything.

The project is called Color Jam, and its creator, Chicago artist Jessica Stockholder, claims it’s the biggest ever vinyl art project in North America. Program manager and curator Tristan Hummel, who works with the project sponsor, the Chicago Loop Alliance, said the paperwork to make this happen was extreme. He can’t imagine doing it the way Christo might have done.

“To accomplish anything on this scale, to do so without permission would be suicidal,” Hummel said. “You're talking about a huge loss of investment.”

Luckily, he said, the city and other stakeholders have embraced the project, which opens Tuesday June 5th. 

“I wouldn't be surprised if in the ‘70s if they were just like, ‘Weirdo,’ like dismissive of a project like that,” he said of Christo’s 1969 MCA project. “Now I think it's been proven a little better that art has an impact.”

As Hummel and his crew worked, two Chicago police officers rolled up in their SUV. One leaned out the window and asked what was going on. They’re installing art, I told them. The cop nodded his head and they drove away.