The Subtenants of 48 Howard Street

The Subtenants of 48 Howard Street

Ahead of Sotheby's Unwrapped, Part I: The Hidden World of Christo and Jeanne-Claude sale, the artists' close friend Matthias Koddenberg reflects on the home they shared.


W hen I think of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, I cannot help but think of the building that was their home for 56 years. The Howard Street building, such an integral part of their art and their life. The smell of it: Jeanne-Claude’s perfume, which the house continued to exude from its every pore, even after her death. The sounds of it: the Mozart CD that stayed on repeat mode to the despair of any visitor after the fifth time around, if not earlier; the squeak of the old wooden staircase that Christo, Jeanne-Claude and countless guests, friends and collectors continually clambered up and hurtled down through the years. “Five floors! No lift!” How many times did I hear those words, always spoken with a mixture of pride, loyalism and a touch of mischievous jubilation with regard to visitors unaccustomed to getting around on foot! I feel that 48 Howard Street is surrounded by an aura that no other building possesses.

48 Howard Street in New York. © Photo Wolfgang Volz / The Estate of Christo V. Javacheff

When, in 1964, Christo and Jeanne-Claude disembarked from the SS France at the Port of New York, their only earthly possessions were two mattresses and a Rietveld chair that Christo, a respectful admirer of the designer, had exchanged for one of his works. In addition to the hordes of mice that had lay claim to the old disaffected 19th century factory, that chair was the first “subtenant” to take up residence there with Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

The two floors – each of which they rented for $70 a month before later purchasing the entire building – served as their residence, workshop, office, command centre and creative cradle. But most of all, it was home to the two nomadic artists who had not had one before. By fleeing the Communist regime of Bulgaria in January 1957, Christo became a migrant in spite of himself, buffeted between two worlds. To him, the only logical outcome was to spend his life in New York City: “It is the most ruthless and rootless city, and when we are all so rootless it becomes the only place which gives us a true image of life.”

GERRIT THOMAS RIETVELD, Hoge Chair, designed in 1919. This model in 1963, wenge and paint. Estimate: €80,000–120,000

Before moving in, Christo and Jeanne-Claude liberated the two floors from years of accumulated dust and puddles of oil leaked from old machines. They plastered the walls, filled the holes in the floor and ceiling, repaired and repainted the space. Philip Glass and Jene Highstein helped them install their bathroom; Gordon Matta-Clark built their cabinets.

The rest of the furniture, which still stands in its original arrangement, was recuperated from the curbside, or fashioned by Christo himself using old planks of wood. The living room was always austere. One wall was hung with old family portraits drawn by Christo during his studies in Bulgaria. Another was covered, frame-to-frame, with all the works that Christo and Jeanne-Claude had received as gifts through the years, or that they had exchanged for their works.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's home in New York in September 2020. Photo © André Grossmann © The Estate of Christo V. Javacheff.

There were also creations from all the artists that they most appreciated: principally Marcel Duchamp, Ray Johnson, Saul Steinberg, André Cadere and Nam June Paik. However, the couple never considered themselves collectors. A large portion of the works stood as testaments to various friendships and encounters; each work was associated with an anecdote that was more precious to them than the work itself. Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring (himself a great admirer of Christo and Jeanne-Claude)...In their eyes, the prestigious names weren’t important, but the stories that tied the pair to each of them certainly were.

CHRISTO AND JEAN-CLAUDE OF CHRISTO'S GREEN STORE FRONT, REALIZED FOR A GROUP SHOW AT LEO CASTELLI IN MAY 1964, NEW YORK, 1966. PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS CUGINI. © THOMAS CUGINI, ZURICH

After the departure of the Howard Street inhabitants, it is now time for the subtenants to leave. Like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, they have become nomads, searching for a new home. It was Christo’s dearest wish that his collection should continue the journey after his death, pursuing its existence elsewhere. A heart-rending wish for all those who remain here on Howard Street, and yet one that fits in perfectly with a life – an art – that lent no importance to wealth, the permanence of objects, or the notion of property. And even when these 'subtenants' will have moved on, their stories will linger, both on Howard Street and in the minds of all those who so laboriously climbed that wooden staircase again and again.

MAIN IMAGE: CHRISTO AND JEANNE-CLAUDE IN NEW YORK. © UGO MULAS HEIRS. TOUS DROITS RÉSERVÉS

Contemporary Art

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