For nearly twenty years, conceptual artist Christo and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, made plans for the "Over the River" project, a series of sun shades that hopefully will be installed in a few years over intermittent stretches of the Arkansas River in southern Colorado as a temporary work of art. It's not clear yet whether it will happen, though it is clear that a multifarious campaign has been mounted against it.

Internationally renowned, Christo and Jeanne-Claude began their conjoined art careers in Paris in the late 1950s. Christo was born in Bulgaria, but in 1957 he crossed the Iron Curtain from Czechoslovakia into Austria while hidden on a medical supply train. He wound up in Paris, and in 1958 met Jeanne-Claude. Christo quickly made a name for himself in vanguard art circles in Paris with installations using oil barrels, some that were realized and some that were merely imagined. The basis of these works was incredibly detailed drawings and mixed-media works that are supremely beautiful and jam-packed with intellectual and visual interest.

In 1964 the couple moved to New York, where they settled permanently. In the '70s and '80s, Christo achieved widespread fame, not just in art circles, but in the popular imagination, as well, with news organizations covering his projects on television and in the press. The public paid attention because of the enormous scale he used, actually employing the landscape itself as an element in his artworks. One of the great powers of Christo's pieces is the way he refers to the landscape tradition in art, but torques it by making the scenery one of his materials rather than the subject of his work.

"Over the River," by Christo, mixed media.
"Over the River," by Christo, mixed media.

"Valley Curtain" was among the first of these monumental interventions in the scenery; in it, Christo hung an orange curtain between a gap in the mountains in Colorado. Other pieces quickly followed, including "Running Fence," a white fence that ran over a distance of thirty miles in California, and "Surrounded Islands," halos of pink plastic sheeting wrapping around actual islands in Florida's Biscayne Bay. His most recent work was "The Gates," from 2005, a series of skeletal passageways of steel and fabric located along paths in New York's Central Park. "The Gates" was a rousing success, even though, like "Over the River," it had initially been met with considerable opposition.

" Over the River" will be truly monumental. To build the piece, Christo and a small army of construction workers and engineers will use almost six miles' worth of silvery fabric that will shelter the river in various places over a 42-mile-long area between Salida and Cañon City. As is always done with these very expensive projects, Christo and his organization will raise the money for it themselves.

Christo first conceived of the idea of mounting horizontal awnings over a curving river back in 1992, before he even picked a particular river. He did have a set of things he wanted in his chosen river, however. It needed to have flat areas on either side of its shores, to allow visitors to walk along the river under the piece. There needed to be steep rocky banks beyond these flat areas so that the metal supports for the sunscreens could be anchored. And for his purposes, the river also needed to have a highway running alongside it so that viewers could look at the miles-long piece as they drove by.

The Arkansas was chosen because it satisfied all these criteria and more. In addition to the highway that runs along the river, there is a railroad line on the opposite side. The highway and railroad tracks are lines written in the earth that follow the lines of the river itself, and thus both contribute, just as the river does, to Christo's overall composition of forms that he wants to impose on the landscape.

That's the same situation the artist faced when he chose Colorado for the site of 1972's "Valley Curtain." In that case, Christo strung drapery between the two sides of Rifle Gap outside the town of Rifle, with a highway running right through the bottom of the piece that had an opening to accommodate traffic. Well, at least for the day or so that "Valley Curtain" survived before punishing winds in that area ripped it to shreds.

Here in Denver, we're lucky to be just a few hours' drive from the proposed setting for "Over the River" and to be able to carefully examine the concept with an exhibit at MCA Denver called Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado, a Work in Progress. The idea for the exhibit, says MCA curator Nora Burnett Abrams, originated with Christo himself, who approached the museum more than a year ago.

Over the River was curated and designed by Christo, who sent out an assistant from his studio to install the pieces. Each work was placed according to indications on carefully measured drawings of the walls of the MCA's second-floor Joseph Crescenti Family Gallery that Christo had had prepared and had detailed. (Christo will speak at the MCA on November 5; see page 20 for details.)

The show is beautiful and coolly elegant, which has something to do with all the blue sky in the mixed-media drawings on view. This coolness is the perfect analogy for "Over the River," since the water and the sunscreens both would have a cooling effect on visitors walking along the banks. Another kind of coolness comes from the aloof character of Christo's work; its pseudo-scientific look is a combination of mechanical images, technical drawings and hand-worked passages. A key aspect seen in many of the pieces is the altered photographs that show the river as it would appear with the sunscreens on top of it. These original site photos that Christo has drawn on were taken by Wolfgang Volz, a photographer who has worked with the artist for decades.

I've always thought it was interesting, in light of the conceptual realm in which Christo operates, that his drawing style is so traditional. What makes it not old-fashioned, though, are the written directions and topographic documents, among other mixed materials, that are employed to clearly express his ideas about the project.

A number of the pieces include small strips or samples of the proposed fabric that will be suspended over the river. It is roughly woven, à la hopsack or burlap, but is done in a silvery synthetic fabric. I didn't realize until I looked at some of the drawings at the MCA that the open weave of the fabric would allow it to become virtually transparent from underneath so that the view would be of the sky visible through the sunscreen. From the outside, though, from the highway view, the screens would appear as solid sheets, with the sun bouncing off the silver color.

The MCA show proves that "Over the River" would be an internationally significant art event if it happened. It would also be Christo's first piece since Jeanne-Claude died. And I fear, as Christo himself is getting along in years — and these kinds of projects eat up time — that it will be his last. Christo is currently involved in the permitting process, and his right to do "Over the River" has not yet been granted by the various powers that be, including the federal Bureau of Land Management, which could put a halt to the whole thing early next year.

Many of those who oppose "Over the River" have legitimate concerns about wildlife and about crowding in the area during the time the piece will actually be up, but most of the opposition is made up of people who simply don't like art in general, and Christo in particular. In the discussions of "Over the River," Christo has frequently been branded an egomaniac, and that might be true. But another part of the Christo story is his altruism: "Over the River" will be free and open to the public for its enjoyment, just as all of his other environmental pieces have been. It will be a genuine tragedy for all of us in Colorado if the haters win and "Over the River" never happens.

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