On Monday, April 26, 2010, thousands of celebrants walked through mournful rain to what could only be called a joyful Happening. At both The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Boathouse in Central Park, dozens of laptop-enabled facilitators welcomed the guests. A phalanx of others distributed canvas bags on which a photograph of a Christo-wrapped portrait had been printed. The bags had artistically tied handles of two kinds of twine. The assistants smiled.
Inside both locations, the gathered were greeted by the sound of Marvin Gaye. Wine, beer, and sparkling water were passed. A parade of smiling wait staff offered interesting hors d'oeuvres. It was a detail-oriented gathering, carefully choreographed in tribute to one of the greatest attendants to detail that the art world has ever seen.
Jeanne-Claude and Christo were born on the same day: June 13, 1935. They met in Paris in 1958, and their story could very well be the gold standard for both romance and authenticity.
Here are some small insights into how one woman grabbed hold of who she truly was -- someone she did not even imagine she could be, but managed to reach by clearly listening to that small still voice inside of herself whispering hints of a genuine self.
Jeanne-Claude was from a conservative and conventional French family, born to follow the proscribed path of socialite and homemaker. Her mother (who apparently was a great believer in the proscribed path) hired a virtually starving Bulgarian artist to paint first her portrait and, after being so very pleased with the result, the portraits of many family members and friends. Jeanne-Claude was in her twenties and engaged at the time. Sparks flew between the painter and the young woman but, reasoning that this was simply the one fling of her life, she married the man to whom she was pledged and went off to a disastrous honeymoon in Tunisia.
Only days after the newlyweds returned to Paris, the husband went to the office, leaving his bride at home alone for the first time in her life. On that morning, Jeanne-Claude called a locksmith to change the locks and then called Christo to come to the apartment. Returning home, the husband was puzzled when his key did not work. He tried another. He rattled the doorknob. He knocked on the door, shouting with some agitation, "Jeanne-Claude, Jeanne-Claude, let me in!" Gathering her courage, having clearly collected her wits in matters of the heart, the formerly conventional Jeanne-Claude called out: "Your key does not fit my lock!"
And so her real life began. And the story shows she never lived a not-real minute again.
There are many, many illustrations of Jeanne-Claude's grit, her determination, her general's ability to marshal troops to perform monumental feats despite impossible odds against their being accomplished. She was gorgeously unpretty and beautifully radiant with life and belief in herself and her purpose. She was sure. She was not born to be what she became, but she understood what she could and would be. And hers was one of those lives that appears to have been lived to the fullest extent with the greatest measure of joy.
A video ended the service. In it, you can see a point at which she and her husband are being interviewed by someone who asks, "Will you ever retire?"
"Retire?" Jeanne-Claude responds. "Retire? Artists do NOT retire. They do not retire! They die."
Watch the memorial service to see how someone who devoted herself to the evanescent and fleeting expression of true art will--without question--live on.