Christo’s controversy is art

Christo and Jeanne-Claude began developing this vision for the Arkansas River in 1992.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude began developing this vision for the Arkansas River in 1992.

Christo explains that controversy = art

‘I’m not a masochist,’ he says of long approval process

BOULDER, Colo. – By the simple measure of engagement, Christo’s plans to drape 5.9 miles of river canyon in Colorado with translucent fabric is already a smashing success.

Christo spoke at a forum on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder last Thursday, showing 80 slides of “Over the River,” his Colorado project, and those of a project planned in the Mideast. The 1,000-plus seats were all occupied, with hundreds more standing or sitting on the floor.

Christo considers his projects art, although many dispute that. But that is exactly the point. Art is a process.

“Anyone who thinks about the project, good or bad, is part of the work of art,” he said at Snowmass Village last summer. “It’s irrelevant whether they like it or dislike it—they are affected by the work.”

Speaking with newspapers in Denver and Boulder before his presentation last week, the 78-year-old Christo explained art typically is a matter of small circles, the artist and the connoisseurs. But their projects—he still speaks of his late wife Jeanne-Claude as if she were alive, although she died in 2009—are in-your-face public. That’s intentional.

“For many years, all the people are thinking how the work will be beautiful, how the work will be awful,” he told The Denver Post. “Basically the work is working in the mind of the people before it physically exists. This is probably the biggest satisfaction we have – Jeanne Claude and myself – because this is the only thing artists like to have, whether it’s painting or sculpture, to have the people comment and discuss their works.”

Speaking with the CU Daily, Christo said that he and his team don’t do commissions. “Commissions typically are straightforward as far as presentations is concerned. Where’s the fun in that? You’re probably going to miss out on all those people discussing the proposed work at public hearings, where the attendees in effect become creative participants.”

Among the first projects of the Bulgarian-born Christo and Jeanne-Claude, a native of France, was one in Colorado. At a site called Rifle Gap, the artists unfurled the Valley Curtain in 1972. It fluttered in the canyon gap for 28 hours before strong winds shredded the bright orange fabric.

Later, the couple erected a running fence in California’s coastal foothills, placed plastic surrounding islands near Miami, and put a cocoon around Berlin’s Reichstag.

They passed on this writer’s suggestion in the 1990s to create a project near Vail, placing a toupee atop Bald Mountain.

Instead, in 1992, Christ and Jeanne-Claude began looking at 90 rivers, including the Salmon in Idaho, the Wind River in Wyoming, and the Poudre in Colorado.

Over the River croppedWhat they did decide was to cover portions of the Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City with the translucent silver fabric. It’s a popular segment of river for rafting, and if the project goes—only one lawsuit in federal court stands in the way of implementation—rafters will be able to have a surreal experience.

It won’t be natural, however, much to the distress of many objectors, including Rags Over the Arkansas River. The group filed two unsuccessful lawsuits in an attempt to block the project. But with a river bordered by both a railroad and a highway, the setting is hardly natural, Christo defenders have pointed out.

The cost of the Over the River is $50 million, which Christo is financing through sales of bits of previous projects and sketches and drawings of this project.

Christo isn’t standing still, however. He also wants to erect a permanent sculpture in the desert south of Abu Dhabi. It would be larger than the Pyramids.

He’s never worked on two projects simultaneously, but Christo tells the Post that at his age, 73, he cannot dawdle. “The stakes: They are higher. The expense: They are higher. The risk: They are higher. But there are no other options. This life, it is not forever.”

The slow movement of this process is not unusual. Winning approval to install “The Gates” in New York City’s Central Park took 26 years.

“I’m not a masochist. This is how works of art develop,” he said.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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