Surrounded Islands: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Famous Pink Landscape

In May of 1983, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude decided to surround eleven islands situated in Biscayne Bay of Miami with six million square feet of pink fabric for two weeks.

Oct 30, 2020By Dea Cvetković, BA and MA in Art History
christo jeanne claude surrounded islands
Surrounded Islands (Project for Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 1983 (left); with Christo and Jeanne-Claude photographed by Wolfgang Volz, 2005 (right)


The artistic duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude are famous for many things, but mostly for wrapping objects, historic sites, monuments, and buildings. During their long careers, the duo also made many artistic interventions in nature. They preferred to call themselves environmental artists instead of land or conceptual artists. One of their most famous art projects done in nature is called Surrounded Islands. For this piece, the artists chose a fabric in a gorgeous pink shade and surrounded eleven man-made islands in Miami with it. Take a look at the process of creating the Surrounded Islands, the meaning of the color pink in it, and the interesting public reactions to it.


Christo And Jeanne-Claude Come To Miami

Surrounded Islands (Project for Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 1983, via Christie’s 


In the year 1980 Jan van der Marck, the director of Miami’s Center for the Fine Arts, invited Christo and Jeanne-Claude to create an art project in Florida. The duo then came to Miami and looked around the city for the perfect spot. They noticed the islands in the Biscayne Bay while driving on the causeways in their car. So, the two environmental artists picked those eleven islands for their next artistic endeavor. 


The artists started working on the Surrounded Islands in 1981. When presenting it to the press Christo called it their “pink project”. He also noted that they will finance the making of the piece themselves. Christo and Jeanne-Claude always funded their artworks and projects by themselves. They worked with banks and sold Christo’s drawings to collectors, museums, and galleries. They never accepted commissions and by funding the projects themselves, they remained free to do whatever they wanted. 


It’s interesting to know that when Andy Warhol was asked who the best businessman in arts was he simply answered: Christo. Their business system worked so well that even a Harvard Business School case study was written about it. 


The Amazing Working Process Of Christo And Jeanne-Claude

Surrounded Islands (Project for Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 1983, via Sotheby’s 

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude divided their working process into two phases. The first phase was called the software period. During the software phase, the work existed as an idea which Christo then turned into drawings and sketches. It is safe to say that the preparatory works alone are beautiful art pieces too. During the hardware period of the working process, the art project was created, built, and displayed in the real world.


Surrounded Islands by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 1983, photographed by Wolfgang Volz, via Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Website


For almost every one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects, the working process was very long. The artists had to obtain all of the permits needed to make a piece of art in a public space. The duo also always worked closely with engineers and other experts when coming up with a new piece. Art historian Alber Elsen said that Christo and Jeanne-Claude “have effectively redefined the meaning of the work of art,” because for them “work” is a verb and not a noun. 


When planning the Surrounded Islands, the artists had to work with attorneys, marine biologists, engineers, marine engineers, mammal experts, and ornithologists. They also had to get permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 


Surrounded Islands (Project for Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 1982, via Sotheby’s 


During the two-and-a-half-year long working process, Christo and Jeanne-Claude ran tests to check if the work would endanger any living organism that came in touch with the pink fabric. They also cleaned the islands of 40 tons of garbage that consisted of old car tires, boats, fridges, and mattresses. One of the islands was even known as the “beer can island.” 


On the 4th of May in 1983, 430 people started surrounding the islands with the pink polypropylene fabric. The pink fabric was sawn into 79 patterns in a rented factory in Hialeah, Florida. Every island had its designated captain who was in charge of organizing the workers. During the two weeks while the work was presented in public, a boat cruised around the islands non-stop to make sure that no birds got trapped in the fabric and that nothing else had gone wrong. The artists also refused to hire volunteers, meaning everybody always got paid for their work. 


Visitors were able to see the altered islands from boats, causeways, helicopters, and airplanes, but most of the people saw the piece through their television sets. Movie directors Albert and David Maysles filmed the whole process of making the Surrounded Islands and made a documentary about it.


The Meaning Of Color Pink

Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special (Elvis Presley car), 1955, via Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.


The color pink was a big part of the work. Pink was supposed to represent the Latin culture of Florida, but it also functioned as the most artificial color of all. Next to the nature of the Biscayne Bay pink was a clear sign of something that was man-made. In Florida, pink is also viewed as one of the main colors of Miami’s Art Deco district. It is also present in the state’s natural world, mainly in pink flamingos.


Pink is a special color. People either hate it or they love it. It is often wrongfully seen as “not serious enough” as if a color could or could not be serious. Pink appears in nature rarely and when it does it is considered special or magical. 


Pink is also a color of American Pop Culture, so it makes perfect sense that the artist duo chose it for their work in the US. You can see the color in Elvis’s Cadillac, Jayne Mansfield’s Palace, Marilyn Monroe’s dress in the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or the famous outfits of the First Lady Mamie Eisenhower


Poster for the movie Funny Face, 1957 via Christie’s


The color pink is often seen as feminine. This notion is a product of American postwar culture that divided colors according to gender. Blue was meant for the boys and pink was meant for the girls. This division, of course, only made people want to spend more money on different products. Before the fifties, babies were usually dressed in neutral white. We also know that pink was worn by both men and women in the 18th century France during the Rococo period


However, in the 1957 movie Funny Face women are told to “Think Pink!” and “banish the black, burn the blue, and bury the beige.” Pink was also seen as the color of popular high school girls like the Pink Ladies in the movie Grease. Even in the 21st century, pink is a clear sign of the affluence of popular girls in movies like Mean Girls or Legally Blonde. Therefore, in mass culture pink is almost always connected to something luxurious, frivolous, artificial, and girly. 


Dos Mujeres en Rojos by Rufino Tamayo, 1978 via Christie’s


The color pink is also a big part of Latin visual culture. A shade of pink similar to the one used by Christo and Jeanne-Claude is called the Mexican Pink. It is present in the artworks created by Rufino Tamayo and Frida Kahlo. Mexican Pink is also a part of the designs of Ramon Valdiosera. This color also plays a big part in buildings designed by Mexican architects Luis Barragan and Ricardo Legorreta. 


The Dreamy Pink Of Surrounded Islands

Surrounded Island by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 1982, via Christie’s


Surrounded Islands is not Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s first work colored in pink. In 1964 Christo created one of his Store Fronts in a lighter shade of pink. 


Christo and Jeanne-Claude chose pink for their Miami project because it was an artificial color that represented the human hand next to the natural setting. Pink plays a big part in the whole visual identity of the work. In the Maysles brothers’ documentary, workers on the project can be seen wearing pink shirts as uniforms. After the piece was finished, Christo sent 1 dollar pink checks as thank-you notes to everyone who was involved in its making.


Water Lilies by Claude Monet, 1906, via Art Institute of Chicago


The look of the Surrounded Islands also changed during the two weeks it existed in public. Depending on the time of the day and the weather, reflections of the pink fabric on the water changed. A new experience was there for the viewers each time they looked at it. 


The audience had an interesting response to the color of the work. Some said it reminded them of spills of Pepto Bismol syrup, a pink-colored medicine. Christo also noted that the Surrounded Islands should resemble Monet’s Waterlilies


The Significance Of Christo And Jeanne-Claude’s Surrounded Islands

Christo and Jeanne-Claude photographed by Wolfgang Volz, 2005, via Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Website


Christo and Jeanne-Claude helped establish Miami as the next contemporary art center. Today, Miami is famous for its art scene with fairs like Art Basel happening there every year. 


The artist duo also helped the economy of Florida because a lot of visitors came to see the Surrounded Islands in person. This helped the tourism industry because visitors had to spend money on accommodation and food in Miami. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were also very eco-friendly and cleaned the area of the eleven islands. They also donated money they received from selling 1000 signed photographs of the Surrounded Islands to the Biscayne Bay Trust Fund.


Most of the works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude function as ephemeral pieces, present only for a short time. After two weeks in May of 1983, the Surrounded Islands were taken down. Today the work exists only through documentation and memory. In 2018 a documentary exhibition was held at Perez Art Museum Miami to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the work. For Christo and Jeanne-Claude their ephemeral works are like rainbows. They are special, beautiful, joyful, and you will want to see them right away while they are still there. 


Surrounded Islands (Project for Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 1983, via Sotheby’s 


For Christo and Jeanne-Claude the whole working process was a part of the final piece. Every meeting they had to have, permits they had to obtain – it was all a part of the final piece. Christo has said: “I love to live this life among the real things. Not with television. Not where things sit comfortably in air-conditioned galleries and museums. With real human relationships, where everything is real.”


During their prolific careers, Christo and Jeanne-Claude made pieces that forever changed the spaces they chose for their projects. Whether they wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin, Pont Neuf in Paris, or surrounded the Miami islands in pink fabric, the duo gave these places new meanings. By inserting their aesthetic into old familiar places, Christo and Jeanne-Claude created a new history of those spaces. The ephemeral quality of their work shows us the fragile nature of things. It also teaches us to enjoy things in the moment. Christo passed away in 2020, but both he and Jeanne-Claude will forever be remembered in the history of art for their amazing work. Their art projects always celebrated beauty, humans, nature, and life.


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By Dea CvetkovićBA and MA in Art HistoryDea has a Bachelor and a Master’s degree in history of Art from the University of Belgrade. Her main fields of interest include modern and contemporary art, American art, gender studies, photography, and film. She loves taking pictures, watching movies, traveling, and wandering around museums.