On the wall in the headquarters of the Tremaine Foundation hangs a lithograph by Christo of a little red wagon. A Radio Flyer, it is the iconic type of wagon children all across the nation have owned and treasured for one hundred years, pulling all manner of things in it, be it a friend, a puppy, or a sparkly rock found in the backyard. However, in the lithograph, the wagon is filled with an oddly shaped package, wrapped in paper and tied with twine. Perhaps it is groceries or a favorite toy wrapped up to protect it from rain. There is no way of knowing.

Package on Radio Flyer (silkscreen, 19 ½ x 22”) was purchased in 1993, five years after the death of Emily Hall Tremaine. Yet there is strong continuity between it and Double Store Front, a major work by Christo, which the Tremaines acquired in 1964. Both works—and nearly everything else created by Christo—have the capacity to engage viewers in powerful ways.

From the time he reached adulthood, Christo Vladmirov Javacheff’s trajectory was to the West. Christo, as he was called, was born in Bulgaria in 1935. At the age of 21, as the Soviet Union lowered the Iron Curtain across all of Eastern Europe, Christo moved to Czechoslovakia, hoping to find a safe place to create. He then fled to Austria, traveled on to Switzerland, and finally settled in Paris in 1958. It was there that he met Jeanne-Claude, his future partner, wife, and muse. However, the West was still calling to him, and so in 1964, Christo and Jeanne-Claude moved to New York City.

Immediately, Christo became intrigued by urban architectural spaces, which were markedly different in the United States than in Europe. He was also intrigued by what was hidden or wrapped—essentially, things that were out of sight but not out of mind. This type of art engaged viewers not only by what they saw but also by what they imagined. While it is only speculation, it is possible that Christo’s experience growing up during wartime and under totalitarian regimes led to his attraction to what was unsaid and unseen. 

The Tremaines acquired Double Store Front (26½ x 34 3/4 x 3”) in 1964 from the prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery. Emily did not consider Double Store Front to be either a painting or a sculpture, but a relief.  Christo appreciated Emily’s interest in his work, given the fact that he and Jeanne-Claude had just arrive in New York and were struggling to get their feet on the ground in a new country and an unfamiliar art world. He also appreciated Emily’s fascination with architectural space. “Mrs. Tremaine was not a fashionable collector, she was a fine collector,” Christo told a journalist. “She bought what she liked. She was a passionate collector, and passionately collecting art is an extremely private business. It’s like making love. Making and consuming art is a very exclusive affair; it is a unique and irreplaceable experience. And the artists benefit from this kind of collector—passionate collectors who see and share the exclusivity of their work.”

“Double Store Front,” Christo. Image courtesy Tremaine Foundation archives.

In Double Store Front, the red frame of the windows is mounted on wood and illuminated by bare light bulbs, creating bleak shadows. Three-dimensional, the storefront juts out, pushing toward the viewer who desires to look inside but is prevented from doing so. Christo’s storefront concept had to do with abandoned buildings in which sections (often the windows) were covered or wrapped, obscuring their function. Some critics considered them reminiscent of the storefront paintings by Edward Hopper. Yet they had a very different aesthetic, demarcated by measurements and perspective lines drawn in black, indicating that the store front is as much about the making of art as it is art. It is real and it is pretense. It is complete and it is a work in progress. The marks and measurements also make the viewer aware of the artist’s presence, actually engaging the viewer in how the work was created. Package on Radio Flyer, painted almost thirty years later, bears the same kind of measurements and perspective lines, although the red wagon is a far more cheery image than an abandoned store, conjuring up the play of a child instead of the financial failure of a storekeeper.

Double Store Front and Package on Radio Flyer are also about transience. The closed store is on the verge of becoming something else, or being destroyed. The wagon is a form of transport, meant to be in motion. Transience is also one of the underlying themes in Christo’s monumental works, such as The Gates in New York City in 2005 that lasted sixteen days, and Running Fence in California that lasted fourteen days. If life is transient, then so is art. Christo believed that it took greater courage to create things that would not last than to create things that would remain. The process of making the art was integral. This echoed the creation of Buddhist sand mandalas that are destroyed after completion. Had Emily lived to see The Gates, she probably would have loved it, both for its transience and its engaging nature, with people strolling beneath the billowing curtains. So too Package on Radio Flyer is about engagement. It raises all sorts of questions for a viewer, such as: where has the child gone, and what is in the package?

The Emily Files is a monthly feature where we explore specific pieces from the Tremaine Collection and connect them to themes shaping contemporary art. Each feature is written by Kathleen Housley, author of Emily Hall Tremaine: Collector on the Cusp.

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