Ever since the Denver Art Museum unleashed the Daniel Libeskind-designed Frederic C. Hamilton Building in 2006, the rest of the top galleries and art centers around here have felt the heat. To compete, they've presented one great show after another, seeking to outdo each other. And showing up the DAM is no mean feat: The institution was already the cultural equivalent of the 800-pound gorilla even before the Hamilton came on line.
It's a fortuitous situation for exhibition-goers, and it only intensified with the opening of David Adjaye's Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver last fall.
Higher standards are now the normal state of affairs here. A prime example is the mini-blockbuster Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Prints and Objects, at Metro State's Center for Visual Art. The show includes more than a hundred pieces, almost all of them works on paper from editions that were loaned to the CVA by the two artists themselves. Well-known as total control freaks, Christo and Jeanne-Claude also sent elaborate hanging instructions and blueprints locating each piece on a specific wall at the CVA.
I watched poor Dave Seiler, who was the one charged with hanging this show, furrow his brow more than once as he tried to conscientiously interpret the fanatically detailed instructions; he was down to the placement of the super-titles on the top of the walls that divide the show according to date. Seiler knew that the couple — well, Jeanne-Claude, anyway — would come uncorked if even the tiniest part of their meticulously prepared instructions were misinterpreted in any way. (Christo and Jeanne-Claude won't get here until next week to check it out, so Seiler will have to keep pacing the floor until then.) For what it's worth, it looks great to me.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude are household names not only in the contemporary-art realm, but generally. More than any artists I can think of, they have engaged the public and wound up in general-interest magazines and TV shows. Their most recent collaboration, "The Gates," in New York's Central Park, attracted millions of visitors and was the subject of several documentaries even though it only stood for a short time in 2005. But their work, going back to the 1960s, also set the groundwork for art today — in particular, conceptualism, the predominant sensibility of our time.
It all started in 1958, when Christo, a Bulgarian-born emigré who had studied fine art in Sofia and Vienna, arrived in Paris. Soon after, he met and hooked up with Jeanne-Claude, which was extremely fortunate for art history, as she had the means and the force of will to make Christo's increasingly ambitious fantasies become realities. At the time, Christo was already packaging or wrapping mundane objects, which represented his staggering breakthrough for the times — the notion that art was as much about thinking as it was about seeing. Oh, sure, Marcel Duchamp had plowed this field before, but Christo was part of a generation of young artists who pushed his ideas and those of the other dadaists back onto the center stage of contemporary art.
Creating pieces that combined thinking and seeing presented the perfect balancing act for Christo, because the idea of covering something is chock-full of potential narrative interpretations, and based on his obvious talent as well as that old-fashioned European art training he got, he was also an accomplished traditional draftsman. So before wrapping things in cloth or plastic, he first created a drawing to anchor it as a full-blown work of art, right down to having a preliminary study for it. The show at the CVA shows off this formidable skill, with most of the pieces on view being prints based on his drawings.
CVA director Jennifer Garner had wanted to do something with Christo and Jeanne-Claude for a long time, and she approached them with the idea of a show. She was surprised that they so readily agreed, but then again, the two have a vested interest in raising their Colorado profile just now. You see, they'll need some goodwill if they want to pull off "Over the River" in southern Colorado in 2011, because it requires skilled maneuvering through layers of bureaucratic process. The couple knows that having the right people on their side can make all the difference, and an easy way to get them on board is with a great presentation. "Over the River" which was first proposed in 1992, aims to shroud the Arkansas River in stretched fabric covers mounted on opposing banks and featuring walkways underneath that will run along the bed. Its depiction is the finale of the CVA exhibit, so I'm getting ahead of myself, but it's the main reason that Denverites have gotten to see the show.
Prints and Objects is substantially chronological, except at the beginning, where "Wrapped New York Times," from 1985, hangs as the first work in a show that includes prints that are twenty years (or more) older. This issue of the New York Times wrapped in clear plastic and bound in twine and cord is the exhibit's touchstone piece, but since Christo and Jeanne-Claude determined the placement of everything long-distance, there's a certain eccentricity to putting it where it is, on the west wall of the entry gallery. This means that visitors must turn to their right to take it in and then immediately turn around and leave this space — the rest of which is devoted to the end of the show — and head to the north gallery, where it picks back up. On the way are two other pieces in this prelude, "Der Spiegel, Magazine Empaque" and "Wrapped Painting," both from the 1960s.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude became famous in 1963, the last year they lived in Europe, and moved permanently to New York in 1964. It was obviously a time of furious imaginative energy for Christo, who was thinking up new projects by the second. He conceived of building enormous structures from oil barrels; he oversaw the design of an inflatable obelisk that is obscenely phallic; but most important, he wanted to wrap just about anything that would stand still, including large buildings and sculpture. Some of these early, never-realized proposals, like wrapping the Ecole Militaire in Paris or two buildings in Lower Manhattan, are absolutely sublime — and so forward-looking, they're just as sharp and crisp intellectually and visually as they were forty-plus years ago.
But Christo also imagined intimate expressions of the same sensibility in which obscuring something was the key gesture. He sketched out storefronts with their windows blocked out by cloth. There are even a row of maquettes of shop windows partly lined with paper blocking the view.
The wrapping of buildings easily segued into the environmental works that established Christo and Jeanne-Claude's combined reputation. Oddly enough, one of the first of these was in Colorado. In 1972, they erected "Valley Curtain," an orange fabric that was stretched across Rifle Gap. Despite being ripped to shreds within hours of its unfurling, "Valley Curtain" brought Christo and Jeanne-Claude to the top ranks of international contemporary art. "Valley Curtain" is represented by photographic prints taken by the pair's longtime documentary photographer, Wolfgang Volz. There are also Volz images of "Running Fence," from 1976, and of "Surrounded Islands," from 1983.
A number of the prints feature unusual elements as their centerpieces. The central image has been machine-cut out of the print and then put back in place once it was hand-wrapped in actual fabric and tied with actual string. Some of these are very pop art, like the wrapped wagon, but others look almost impressionist, with the wrapping masking out the details like the creamy strokes of a Monet painting.
The show works its way around the warren of spaces that makes up the CVA, with the back area showing various videos about Christo and Jeanne-Claude in a continuous display. The final leg of the show, which is dominated by pieces related to "Over the River," is back in the entry gallery. There are collages in which Christo's drawings of the canopies are laid on top of copies of photos of the river, along with photos and maps of the river as it is. Like everything else, they're gorgeous.
Even if you're ho-hum about Christo and could care less about Jeanne-Claude, their unified duet is definitely one of the best viewing bets in town this season. I daresay it's one of the best shows ever at the CVA.
Denver abstractionist Dale Chisman died last weekend. Read more about his life and work at blogs.westword.com/latestword.