Jump to content

Ask the MCA: Christo Wraps the Museum

by Mary Richardson

Christo, Museum of Contemporary Art (Packed-Project-About 20,000 Square Foot Surface), 1968. Canvas, twine, plastic, staples, graphite, colored pencil, and marker on paper; sheet: 21 7/8 × 27 3/4 in. (55.6 × 70.5 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Bergman, 1977.27

Photo © MCA Chicago

blog intro

Since The Street, the Store, and the Silver Screen opened, visitors have been curious about three works in the exhibition that depict Christo's proposal to wrap the MCA's original building, and if it ever came to fruition.

The short answer

Yes, Christo did indeed wrap the MCA, and not only did he wrap the outside, he wrapped the inside as well, using more than 12,000 square feet of canvas!

The extended version

Exactly 47 years have passed since Christo's exhibition Wrap In Wrap Out took place at the MCA's original location, 237 East Ontario Street.

Working with MCA staff and a team of students, Christo wrapped the exterior of the building with 10,000 square feet of water- and fire-resistant brown canvas and the MCA sign in "milky" polyethylene.<sup>1sup This exterior wrap, titled Wrapped Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1968–69, extended into the museum with a companion piece, Wrapped Floor and Stairway, for which Christo draped the walls and floor with 2,800 square feet of natural-colored canvas. Just inside the doors, Christo also placed a tree wrapped in polyethylene.

The project became the first public building Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, wrapped in the United States.

Installation view, Christo: Wrap In Wrap Out, MCA Chicago, Jan 18–Mar 3, 1969. Collection Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 2014.R.20

Photo: Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust

Installation view, Christo: Wrap In Wrap Out, MCA Chicago, Jan 18–Mar 3, 1969. Collection Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 2014.R.20

Photo: Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust

on the wraps significance

Like many pop artists of the era, Christo found inspiration in everyday objects and materials, but instead of transforming them into something else (like turning a Campbell's Soup can into a painting), Christo took an object and wrapped it—mummified it—thwarting its intended use. As the press release for the exhibition announced: “With the whole idea of a modern museum and its usefulness somewhat up for grabs, Christo succeeds in parodying all the usual associations with a museum: a mausoleum, a repository for precious contents, as desire to wrap up all of art history.'”<sup>2sup

Installation view, Christo: Wrap In Wrap Out, MCA Chicago, Jan 18–Mar 3, 1969

Photo: Harry Shunk

on the process

The exterior wrapping took two days. The MCA’s first curator, David Katzive, was on-site for the wrap and documented it through film and writing. From his notes about the process he writes:

Day one, Monday, January 13: Carry tarpaulins to exterior wall . . . Three men on roof haul the tarps up as they are unfurled . . . Christo and two men straighten the tarps as they hang . . . The curator bites his nails.

Day two, Tuesday, January 14: It starts to snow lightly. On both days Christo is incessantly badgered by news photographers and interviewers. He is tense. The curator pulls his hair. Both ladders are leaned against the building and starting from the front, Christo starts to tie the knots himself. . . . He stays in the middle . . . directing passage of the rope. Project complete by nightfall.<sup>3sup

on the exhibition’s complications

One complication Katzive didn't mention was the Chicago Fire Department's strong objection to the wrap. In the previous decade, Chicago had experienced multiple major fires and First Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Francis J. Murphy was determined to avoid another catastrophe. Many tense letters, fabric swatches, testimonials, and phone calls were exchanged in order to prove that the tarps were fire-resistant (even though they were treated tarps, like those draped on construction projects throughout the city). While the Fire Department never quite approved, they did not halt the exhibition, and it remained on view uninterrupted through March 2, 1969, the scheduled closing date.

Installation view, Christo: Wrap In Wrap Out, MCA Chicago, Jan 18–Mar 3, 1969

Photo: Jonas Dovydenas

on operational thought

During most of the exhibition's run, the upper gallery space featured an H. C. Westermann retrospective. Having another exhibition simultaneously on view was no accident. The MCA staff believed it was essential that the museum remain open and functional for visitors to fully experience the impact of Christo's work and be true to his vision. They thought physical interaction with the work could create a disturbing effect that would surpass the wrap's initial absurdity, especially since Christo's work was still very new to US audiences—this was before Valley Curtain or Running Fence, and long before The Gates.

on the publics reactions

Not surprisingly, reactions to the exhibition were mixed. Because contemporary art was brought out of the museum and onto the street, any passerby could encounter it. Understandably, some of those passersby didn't quite know what to make of it. Some assumed the tarps were entirely functional (“they must have some heating problem”<sup>4sup), while others were baffled by its lack of functionality. One man responded almost angrily, “What do they want to wrap it up for? They're not going to be able to move it anywhere . . . You don't go wrapping up buildings unless it's for a reason. Art's no reason.”<sup>5sup

Wall labels for Christo: Wrap In Wrap Out

on the exhibition visitors

The 14,000 visitors intrigued enough to venture into the galleries seemed to enjoy the exhibition though. “Since Christo wrapped us up, young people have been coming in and sitting down to talk, as if the museum were a park” reported museum Public Relations Director Karin Rosenberg. “Some people have even said they thought it was very sexy. Just the other day we found a couple dallying under the stairway.”<sup>6sup One local critic, Robert Glauber, called the wrap “a gut-hitting event that intrigued the imagination and gratified the senses. It was aimed directly at an emotional response and achieved it.”<sup>7sup

on the exhibition’s fleeting quality

Wrap In Wrap Out, at the time, was considered “the most significant thing the Museum has done since it opened its doors,”<sup>8sup but, like a Happening or performance, it was fleeting. According to one report, the MCA resold the tarps for $35 each—not as souvenirs of an exhibition or as artwork—but as if the tarps were returned to their original utilitarian purpose.<sup>9sup All we are left with is documentation.


  1. “Christo - Building exterior only,” 1969, MCA document, unattributed but likely written by David Katzive.
  2. “Christo To Wrap Museum,” MCA Press Release, January 2, 1969.
  3. “Christo - Building exterior only,” 1969.
  4. “Artful Wraps Facing Fire Ire,” Chicago Sun Times, January 15, 1969.
  5. Jack Altman, “Museum All Wrapped Up in Art,” Chicago Sun Times, January 15, 1969.
  6. “Under Wraps,” Newsweek, February 10, 1969.
  7. Robert Glauber, “Wrapping, a Gut-Hitting Event,” Skyline, February 12, 1969.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Fremont Power, “Mod Museum Has Strange Happenings,” The Indianapolis News, March 3, 1969.