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."

Much smaller and with a more subtle appeal is Christo's beautiful 1971 scale model, made of painted and natural wood with polyester, cardboard, fabric and twine. This piece was the first three-dimensional expression of what at the time was a cutting-edge expression of conceptual art. Today, by virtue of its crude craftsmanship and its stale-chocolate-colored gloss paint, it has the naive charm of a whirligig.

Several of the DAM's smaller galleries feature selections of Christo's knock-out collages and drawings, which are characterized by a quick-sketch drawing method that sets scribbled images against more carefully rendered elements. In the 1972 drawing "Valley Curtain, Project for Colorado," Christo puts together his signature stylistic combo. The brown paper has been divided into a pencil grid, with technical data in text and numbers written in Christo's hand running at the top and bottom. The mountains and the greenery have been sketched in expressively, in contrast to the minimal handling of the curtain itself. Pieces like this set Christo apart, even if today the distinctiveness of his work on paper has been diminished by the sheer number of his imitators.

The forthcoming "Over the River" project has sparked a renewed local interest in Christo's work. And it's invigorating to recall in exquisite detail his still-wonderful-after-all-these-years extravaganza from the '70s. Other trends from that era have come and gone--and like disco come again--but Christo never goes out of style.

Interestingly, though they did not tour the Valley Curtain show, members of the Italian contingent to the Summit of the Eight did wind up at the Denver Art Museum, which was then closed to the public. Most notable among the visitors was Flavia Prodi, wife of Italian prime minister Romano Prodi. She and the other dignitaries took a walk through the as-yet-uncompleted sixth-floor rehab which is to open this fall. Leading the group was DAM European-art curator Timothy Standring--who made his comments in Italian, no less. Though the Italians were interested throughout the tour, they reserved their most enthusiastic remarks for DAM's notable pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art collections--precisely the kind of thing they couldn't see back home. Although Rome is the museum capital of the world, mate-rial from the Western hemisphere other than abstract painting is hard to find. According to DAM publicist Christine Genovese, shouts of "Bella!" and "Bellissima!" rang through the New World galleries.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Valley Curtain, Rifle, Colorado, 1970-1972--A Documentation Exhibition, through September 14 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-4433.

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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