Oil barrels proved to be suitable working material for Christo because of their sculptural effect and their low cost, and they soon became a dominant factor in his work. From 1958 onwards, many structures were created out of wrapped and unwrapped barrels. Whereas the wrapped cans and bottles were comparable to classical still lifes, the dimensions of the columns of barrels gave them a life-sized form. Their large size, coupled with their arrangement in groups, enhanced their physical effect over that of the smaller works.
The use of oil barrels gained the upper hand from 1961 onwards when Christo erected a column of unaltered drums only in the courtyard behind his studio at 14 rue de Saint-Senoch for the first time. Christo carried the barrels he had collected and cleaned into the yard, stacked them one upon the other, had them photographed and then finally disassembled them.
In the same year, he moved into a garage in Gentilly, a small suburb of Paris, belonging to his friend the painter Jan Voss. Since Christo’s tiny studio was bursting at the seams at the time, he used the additional space to store some of his works, but mostly to make some large-scale works that were too big for his own studio. Physically, none of these sculptures exist today, but not because Christo himself destroyed or dismantled them. It was his landlord who disposed of them when Christo was no longer in a position to pay the storeroom rent.
By fate or coincidence, the Gentilly studio was located next to a huge yard used for storing oil drums that Christo would be able to use. The new, open space had an immediate effect on his works, most notably in their dimensions. He soon carried the principle of vertical stratification to monumental heights by stacking several barrels up to a height of fifteen feet along the freeway in Gentilly, increasing the drivers’ awareness of and sensitivity to their surroundings through the temporary artistic estrangement of the environment.
The first time Christo had the opportunity to present his new structures to the larger public was at his solo exhibition in the Cologne gallery of Haro Lauhus in 1961. The visitors were welcomed in front of the entrance by a column of stacked barrels, and inside, Christo carried this motif to claustrophobic heights by filling a whole room with his barrel arrangements. The columns and towers of rusty steel drums reached to the ceiling and left only a small passage to get to the back room of the gallery. One newspaper secretly had five visitors photographed from inside as they stared, some amazed, some incredulous, through the window. Underneath the pictures was the headline: "The Most Controversial Exhibition Cologne Has Ever Seen."
When Christo had a personal exhibition at Jeanine de Goldschmidt's Galerie J (Pierre Restany's Paris gallery) the following year, accompanying Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Iron Curtain at Rue Visconti, he installed a wall of rusty steel drums that occupied an entire wall in the gallery. The bottoms and lids, structured from brown and red to yellow and blue, must have seemed like an extreme enlargement of a pointillist painting.
Enlarged reproductions of several ink drawings proposing the use of oil barrels to cover whole building fronts and lobbies were installed on the pillar in the middle of the gallery. Although these early projects were not realized, the drawings indicated the scope of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s imagination and their visionary approach to alter whole environments.
Excerpts from the books Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Early Works 1958-64 (Bönen: Kettler, 2009) and Christo: The Paris Sculptures 1961 (Bönen: Kettler, 2011) by Matthias Koddenberg. Edited by the author in 2012.