An Appreciation of Christian Boltanski, Brilliant Artist, My Friend

The third of three brothers, and with a younger sister adopted later, the family lived with a horror of being separated—a legacy, in part, of their wartime experience. Their home was spacious, but the boys slept at the foot of their parents’ bed until well into their teenage years, only rarely venturing beyond its walls alone. By the age of 12, Christian had abandoned formal schooling and was left largely to his own devices—the artist as idiot savant, a persona he cultivated, both intentionally and not.

Childhood and autobiography were among the great themes of his work, but it was autobiography presented always through the veil of fiction, and childhood as something irretrievably lost. Chance, fate, and death—mortality’s inexorable drumbeat—rounded out the list of his obsessions. Yet he was, as he liked to claim, a “bon vivant,” with an iron-clad memory for every restaurant meal he’d ever eaten. He was also capable of inordinate tenderness.

So it was that I found myself en route to the Place de la Concorde in Paris just after dawn on a foggy October morning. Following instructions that had been sent from Marian Goodman Gallery days earlier, I boarded a bus waiting there to take me to Versailles. (For Christian, the journey to discover site-specific installations was always an integral part of the work.) Seated inside were a motley crew of people whom I assumed were fellow mourners, including a gaggle of middle-aged men—French art critics?—and two beautifully dressed, distinguished-looking Japanese women, deep in conversation. No one spoke to me. About forty minutes later, gazing out the bus window, I noticed, in the fog then lifting over Versailles, a golden cross winking at me from atop the chateau.

Upon arrival, we were ushered into the Royal Chapel, a gilded, 18th-century confection of soaring vaults and colonnades, with the painted figure of Christ high up in the apse, ascending to Heaven accompanied by angels. (The chapel had recently reopened after an over-three-year renovation.) There we joined the president of Versailles, Catherine Pégard, the artist Annette Messager (Christian’s widow, though she later told me she loathes that appellation), and dozens of others who had come by car from Paris, all of us milling about as a relentless, recorded voice announced, dryly and at brief intervals, the hours, minutes, and seconds as they passed. The architecture suggested transcendence; the voice told another story, of mortal creatures stretched upon the rack of time.

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