Since last year, New York-based conceptual guru Christo and his sidekick Jeanne-Claude have virtually taken up residence on the Front Range. First there was that show of drawings and collages at One/West in Fort Collins in the summer of 1995. Then, in 1996, Denver's Robischon Gallery unveiled the new "Over the River" project, which was timed to coincide with the newsworthy announcement--made by Christo and Jeanne-Claude themselves--that the piece is to be built along the Arkansas River in southern Colorado. All the while, the gray-haired artist and his perpetually auburn-haired partner were giving lectures, putting on slide shows, having breakfast and drinking wine--all of it captured on film, which then, of course, appeared on TV and in the newspapers.

Do Christo and Jeanne-Claude know how to hype? They do. And that very talent opens them up to criticism. But are they putting the "con" in conceptual, as their many detractors claim? Absolutely not. Christo is one of the greatest living contemporary artists in the world, and we're lucky that, for the second time, he has chosen to create one of his unforgettable projects here in Colorado.

So, though many may be tempted to cast a jaundiced eye at the most recent event connected with the artists--Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Valley Curtain, Rifle, Colorado, 1970-1972--A Documentation Exhibition--that would be a mistake. Because this show at the Denver Art Museum is worth seeing again and again. Dedicated to Christo's first Colorado project, it's the kind of thing you'll want to drag the visiting out-of-town relatives to see--just after taking in the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers exhibit down the block at the Colorado History Museum.

Longtime Colorado residents--at least those who are old enough--still recall the construction of the "Valley Curtain" in the summer of 1972. At the time, Christo was not the household name he is today, and the "Valley Curtain" was only his fifth try at an architecturally scaled conceptual piece. The work was a mammoth orange curtain hung on August 10, 1972, between the cliff walls of the Rifle Gap. It stood there, magnificently, for only a short time before the sixty-mile-per-hour winds that typically fly through the gap ripped the curtain to shreds. After two years of preparation and the participation of more than 100 construction workers, photographers and engineers, the curtain hung for exactly 28 hours before being removed in a shredded condition the next day. But as the DAM show ably demonstrates, its power lived on--not just for twenty-some hours, but for twenty-some years.

The curtain was designed by Dimiter Zagaroff and John Thomson of the Unipolycon laboratory in Massachusetts, along with Ernest Harris of Denver's Ken White Engineering. It was constructed by A and H Builders of Boulder, with Henry Leininger serving as the on-site supervisor. Made of 142,000 square feet of woven nylon fabric, it spanned the 1,250-foot length of the Rifle Gap and reached a height of 182 feet above the canyon floor at its highest point.

DAM director Lew Sharp says the new Rifle Gap exhibit "completely documents the 'Valley Curtain' as an architectural and engineering feat and as an artistic achievement." And he ain't kidding. The intimate gallery to the left of the Stanton rooms on the museum's first floor has been installed with a handful of collages from Robischon's "Over the River" show. But the rest of the galleries are devoted solely to the "Valley Curtain." And they contain everything about the project that one could possibly imagine.

There's the original correspondence to and from the Colorado Highway Department, which had to be contacted since State Route 325 winds its way through the Rifle Gap. (An arch-shaped opening was cut in the curtain so that traffic could continue to flow after it was unfurled.) There are samples of the material used to make the "Valley Curtain." There are pieces of the cable and of the riggings, along with the stone cores removed to secure the moorings in the sides of the Gap. There are assembled pieces with fabric and cable and rope, not to mention an unbelievable scale model. There are the many photographs taken at the time by Harry Shunk and Wolfgang Volz. And finally, there are all those spectacular collages, drawings and altered photographs by the inimitable Christo on which everything else was based.

Some of the most beautiful things in the "Valley Curtain" show are the collages, which incorporate actual panels of orange fabric. In "Valley Curtain, Project for Colorado," a collage from 1972, Christo places the fabric into a pencil, crayon and charcoal drawing. At the top, which has been divided into a grid, the curtain has been crisply drawn, so that it has an almost photographic quality.

But it's the actual photographs from Shunk and Volz that create the show's dominant feature. Unfortunately, the pictures haven't been individually credited, and we know only that either Shunk or Volz took the shot we're admiring. In any event, all the photographs are being continuously shown in the form of slides in a side gallery. Also being shown periodically is the Academy Award-winning 1972 documentary film Valley Curtain, by the Maysles brothers.

One of the most memorable photographs is a gigantic color photo-mural that must be thirty feet across and fifteen feet tall. It's been printed in multiple panels that have then been laminated and assembled in the manner of a billboard. It's tempting to ascribe this piece's charisma to its gargantuan size. But it's also perfectly framed. And the atmospheric conditions were just right, with shadows cast over the foothills in the foreground and the Grand Hogback Mountain Range misted out in the back. There in the middle is that magnificent glowing orange curtain. Even the jazzy red convertible heading down Route 325 is absolutely perfect. Just to get this photo alone was surely worth all the effort--and all the money--it took to erect the "Valley Curtain."

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