Christo (1935-2020) left an indelible mark on our city’s collective memory. I was one of many thousands of Miamians who witnessed his epic intervention in Biscayne Bay, co-realized with his wife and artistic partner Jeanne-Claude (1935-2009) in May of 1983. I was a child and my recollections are foggy, but I distinctly remember it as a moment of heightened wonder, an exciting disruption of everyday life. I’ve never stopped chasing that sensation, which to this day seems to me to be as good an indicator of great art as any I can think of.
Although the moment was fleeting, I relived it again and again while growing up in the 305 thanks to the posters and framed photographs that seemed to be everywhere—in the school hallway, in my dentist’s waiting room, in libraries, restaurants, gas stations, and friends’ houses. Those ubiquitous mementos were the material articulation of a remarkable shared experience. They expressed our sense of belonging within a community of remembrance and imagination, the community of Surrounded Islands.
With this personal history as backdrop, I felt immeasurably honored to work alongside Christo and his close-knit team to present a large exhibition about Surrounded Islands to Pérez Art Museum Miami’s (PAMM) audiences in 2018. Originally curated in the 1980s by Josy Kraft, the show began with several gorgeous preparatory drawings and collages by Christo, as well as hundreds of archival photographs, surveyors’ diagrams, and legal records documenting the surreal process by which such a radical proposal gained approval from multiple local governments—a Herculean effort led by local attorney Joe Fleming and slam-dunked by former county commissioner Ruth Shack, two of the many heroes of Miami’s cultural history who recur in the Surrounded Islands saga.
Remembering Surrounded Islands directed by Lisa Leone and Jonathan David Kane
The exhibition also included physical artifacts of the project, such as an enormous roll of the original fabric, and photographs that made vivid the elegant logistical ballet by which thousands of square meters of thin synthetic fabric were made to hover along the surface of a choppy bay. Mustering hundreds of workers, many of them artists (including PAMM’s own Chief Preparator Jay Oré), the installation marked the ostensible birth of Miami’s art community. The exhilarating and suspenseful story that the exhibition sought to tell came to an uplifting climax with an immense model surrounded by a set of large, full-color aerial views (taken by Wolfgang Volz) portraying the finished work in all its glory.
My ultimate hope for visitors to the exhibition was that they would come away with a renewed sense of belief in the notion that regular individuals—armed with the support of collaborators and fellow dreamers—can have the power to effect systemic change, to envision the world otherwise. As I write this text, on the second night of the demonstrations and rebellions that have emerged in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, it has never seemed more important to me to believe in this notion.
Last November, PAMM received a major donation of 16 drawings and mixed-media collages by Christo from the artist’s longtime friends Scott Hodes and PAMM trustee María Bechily-Hodes. This transformative gift will forever enable the museum to provide a broad overview, spanning from the late 1960s to the early 2000s, of the major outdoor projects by which Christo and Jeanne-Claude helped to stretch the definition of art beyond the limited conception of self-contained commodities to encompass a radically democratic art form capable of speaking directly to mass audiences across the full spectrum of society.
The grouping includes a work that pertains to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s seminal 1968 project, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago Packed, in which the duo wrapped the entirety of MCA Chicago, exterior and interior, in black fabric. This art historically important project was organized by MCA Curator Jan Van der Marck, who would go on to become the inaugural director/chief curator of PAMM’s predecessor institution the Center for the Fine Arts, and who subsequently convinced the artists to engage Miami as a site for a new project.
The grouping also includes a preparatory collage for the 1981 work Wrapped Reichstag, which revolved around the enormous parliamentary facility in Berlin. On the heels of years of effort, the artists succeeded in wrapping a structure that for many Germans still evoked the Nazi and Soviet regimes, which had used the building as an administrative center and as a sign of their dominion over the populace. Completed on the eve of the fall of the same Communist world order that had separated Christo from his family at an early age, this stunning gesture served symbolically as a reset button for the German people, exemplifying the potential for a nation to move beyond its troubled past and embrace a more hopeful future. The vision, courage, and faith in the power of the people that the project embodies is needed now more than ever.
One of the most poignant aspects of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s major projects is that they were always achingly temporary—just 13 short days in the case of Surrounded Islands. In part this is because their installations could only look perfect for a limited amount of time—about as long as it takes for something new, even something so unusual and beautiful, to become a normalized part of the landscape. On a separate symbolic register, this ephemerality prompts us to think about the importance of living in and for the present—to savor the preciousness of every millisecond of the perceptions and experiences that constitute our lives. No one saw this more clearly than Christo. He led a big life, a bold and spectacular life, and we are all better for it. May he rest in peace, and may we continue to learn from his legacy.
This blog post was authored by PAMM Director of Curatorial Affairs and Chief Curator René Morales.
René Morales recently moved into the role of Director of Curatorial Affairs and Chief Curator at PAMM, where he has organized approximately 50 exhibitions. Recent projects include Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Surrounded Islands, 1980–83 (2018), Dara Friedman: Perfect Stranger (2017), Sarah Oppenheimer: S-281913 (2016), Susan Hiller: Lost and Found (2016), Marjetica Potrc: The School of the Forest (2015), Nicolas Lobo: The Leisure Pit (2015), Global Positioning Systems: Selections from the PAMM Collection (2014–15), Amelia Peláez: The Craft of Modernity, A Human Document: Selections from the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, and Monika Sosnowska: Market (2013–14). Morales spearheaded the acquisition of over 300 works from the Sackner Archive for PAMM’s collection, with the support of the Knight Foundation. He is a 2019 recipient of the prestigious Center for Curatorial Leadership Fellowship, and served as a juror for the Whitney Museum’s 2019 Bucksbaum Prize. He sits on the board of the City of Miami Art in Public Places program, as well as the Professional Advisory Committee of the Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places program. Prior to joining PAMM, he worked at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence, where he organized and co-organized several exhibitions, including Island Nations: New Art from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Morales studied at Swarthmore College, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in biopsychology and art history, and Brown University, where he received a Master of Arts in art history, focusing on the work of Odilon Redon.