Arkansas Raveler

Artists have taken many routes to fame. Salvador Dali struck a chord with unforgettable images such as melting clocks. And like Picasso and Andy Warhol, two other truly famous artists, Dali led a flamboyant life that served to enhance his reputation as a cutting-edge artist. Then there's Christo. To say he's famous would understate the case.

Despite that renown, though, Christo has remained intensely private and has never relied on the outrageous personal gesture to further his career as his famous peers so often have. And also unlike Dali, Picasso or Warhol, he's still alive to enjoy all the commotion that surrounds his efforts, which have included creating curtains for canyons and enveloping small islands or beaches in reams of fabric. Surely an air of excitement surrounds his latest projects, which are the subjects of an important exhibit coming to a close this weekend at LoDo's Robischon Gallery, Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Works in Progress.

Born in Bulgaria in 1935, Christo entered the Fine Arts Academy in Sofia at the age of eighteen. He soon began to work his way west, arriving in Prague in 1957 and, later that same year, Vienna, where he studied at the Fine Arts Academy. But he wasn't discovered by the international art community until 1958, when he finally made it to Paris. By that time, he was already displaying works that would become his signature--"Packages" and "Wrapped Objects." Paris was also where Christo met his wife, Jeanne-Claude, who has been by his side almost from the beginning as companion and collaborator.

Every bit as significant as his arrival in Paris was Christo's decision in 1964 to set up permanent shop in New York, then, as now, the center of the international art market. Since that time, he has wrapped fountains, monuments, staircases, bridges and buildings in fabric. And it seems that every time he has launched one of his outlandish productions, the media has been there. Maybe that's because of the majesty of his mammoth creations or the strength of his vision. Or perhaps it's the sheer will (along with millions of dollars) that Christo necessarily employs to make his ideas real.

Whatever the reasons for Christo's success, they definitely don't include the popularity of conceptual art, which has never enjoyed mass appeal despite having a long tradition in modernism. It was in the first two decades of the twentieth century that French artist Marcel Duchamp began exhibiting found objects like urinals or bottle racks and called his decision to choose a particular object--and not the object itself--a work of art. Christo is, of course, the unrivaled living master of conceptualism, developing vast works from grand ideas and paying for them by selling off the drawings, photographs and maps that are the tools of his trade. It's this kind of intermediate work that's now on display at Robischon.

In the gallery's large front space is an in-depth presentation of drawings, photos, prints and maps of "Over the River," a collaboration between Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The concept for the piece called for a continuous series of fabric panels to be suspended above a river and run along four to six miles of its banks. According to the "Information Bulletin" available for perusal at the show, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were inspired by a "momentary vision" they had as they wrapped fabric around the 400-year-old Pont Neuf bridge over the Seine in Paris in 1985. The bulletin goes on to say that "Christo and Jeanne-Claude jointly decided that they would seek a river site where a fabric suspended high above the river would dramatically enhance the natural beauty and wonders of the river and its surroundings."

The couple decided to find a river in the Rocky Mountain West, and to that end, they traveled extensively through the region during 1995. During that expedition, said to have encompassed some 14,000 miles, the pair narrowed down their choices to six possible sites. Those included two rivers in Colorado, the Arkansas and the Cache la Poudre.

During a November presentation sponsored by the Denver Art Museum at the Temple Events Center, Christo and Jeanne-Claude announced to a crowd of more than 700 people that their first choice was the Arkansas River near Salida. The decision wasn't exactly a surprise; an in-depth presentation of the couple's drawings of the Arkansas was already on display at Robischon. And it marked the second time that Christo and Jeanne-Claude had selected a Colorado site for one of their creations. The first was the short-lived "Valley Curtain" near Rifle, which stood for only one day in August 1972 before gale-force winds ripped it to shreds. Weather permitting, "Over the River" will stand for two weeks.

Just inside the door at Robischon is one of the earliest explorations of the "Over the River" idea, a 1992 drawing titled "The River." The river depicted is generic, with no sense of the American West--"It could be in Bulgaria," notes gallery director Jim Robischon. But the drawing does lay out Christo and Jeanne-Claude's concept in a fairly straightforward manner. Steel cables are suspended from one bank of the river to the other; the cables hold fabric panels high enough above the river so that visitors can walk along the river under the fabric. Unlike many of the couple's works, then, "Over the River" is meant to be seen from both above and below.

All the other pieces in the gallery's front space refer to specific rivers in the West, including the Rio Grande in New Mexico and the Payette in Idaho. Mostly, though, the exhibit focuses on the Arkansas, which appears in twelve of the eighteen "Over the River" items. The most important of these are two large, horizontal diptychs, "Arkansas River (Ref. #7)" and "Arkansas River (Ref. #10)." In the top panel of each, a pair of photos sits next to an enlarged detail of a topographic map; in the bottom panel, a large drawing depicts the river.

These two pieces display Christo's influential aesthetic. His casual and expressive drawing style has been widely imitated, and today works like these are everywhere, as many artists combine maps, photos, drawings and handwritten text. But it was Christo who pioneered the approach.

In addition to the "Over the River" pieces, Robischon also features several works from an earlier, not-yet-built Christo effort: "The Gates," a proposal for New York City's Central Park. This piece will be made up of rectangular steel gates hung with yellow fabric that will be placed along 26 miles of footpaths in the park. According to the artists' statement, "The Gates" will take advantage of the organic design of the paths and the work will seem like a "golden river," serving as a contrast to "the geometric grid pattern of Manhattan."

Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been joined by another river-runner at Robischon--Mario Reis, a German artist known for submerging his canvases in actual rivers. Reis came up with the idea of getting his paintings wet in 1977, when, in an emotional snit, he threw a painting of the Seine into its namesake. When he retrieved the canvas, he found it covered with gray-green silt and realized he had captured the river in a way that he never could have by simply illustrating it. Since that time, Reis has embarked on an international effort to capture the color and character of the world's rivers. These "hydronomical self-portraits" consist of unstretched canvas panels to which the silt of the river has adhered. The resulting colors, though muted, range from expected pinks and browns to less expected tones like yellow and black.

And Reis isn't always content to let the rivers paint themselves. In his so-called intentional works, three of which are presented in Mario Reis: Nature Watercolors, he applies natural powdered elements such as salt and iron to the canvas himself.

Both the Reis display and the Christo/Jeanne-Claude show reflect the commitment of gallery co-directors Jim Robischon and Jennifer Duran. These artists, after all, are working at the margins of the art world and, as a result, their pieces are surely difficult to sell. In the case of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the cost of the works is also well beyond the means of all but the wealthiest people in the city. But once again, Robischon--as it has so many times before--sees its first priority as making a cultural contribution. Call it a stream of conscience.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Works in Progress and Mario Reis: Nature Watercolors, through January 4 at the Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 298-7788.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia