Remembering Christo and His Colorado Connections

Christo's "Valley Curtain."
Bruce McAllister / EPA / National Archives
Christo's "Valley Curtain."
On Sunday, May 31, the Twitter account of renowned artist Christo announced that he had died at his home in New York at the age of 84. No cause of death was revealed.

Christo had an intimate relationship with Colorado unlike that of any other contemporary world-class art giant. This association spanned his entire mature career.

Born in Bulgaria, Christo crossed the Iron Curtain in 1957, hidden on a medical supply train. The next year, he wound up in Paris and met his collaborator and wife, Jeanne-Claude; the rest is art history. The fact that they were born on the same day — June 13, 1935 — indicated to them that they were always meant to be soulmates.

With installations using oil barrels as a material, some that were realized and many more that were merely imagined, Christo quickly made a name for himself in cutting-edge art circles in Paris. His proposals were conveyed through incredibly detailed drawings and mixed-media works of unsurpassable beauty and staggering intelligence. I've always thought it was interesting that Christo’s drawing style was so traditional, in light of the conceptual realm in which he operated; I guess all those written directions and topographical markings made  his oeuvre not a bit old-fashioned.

At the time, there was only one place to go if you wanted to play in the art big leagues: New York, and in 1964 the couple moved there. Starting in the ’70s, Christo achieved widespread fame, becoming a rare example of an artist who enters the popular imagination with coverage of his projects on television and general-interest magazines.

The public was dazzled by the enormous scale in which Christo worked, employing the landscape itself as an element of his artworks. On a conceptual level, he completely deconstructed the landscape tradition in art, by making the scenery one of his materials rather than the subject, as has been the case since the cave painters.

"Valley Curtain," erected in 1972 near Rifle, Colorado, was among the first of his truly monumental interventions. Spending 28 months on the project, working with teams of engineers and armies of construction workers, Christo hung a gigantic curtain in the very period-correct shade of sunset orange across the Rifle Gap. The “curtain” was 1,250 feet across and 365 feet high at its highest point. The power of this kind of huge intrusion into the landscape was hard to deny (think Mount Rushmore), even when such feats can only be seen in pictures. The very idea of “Valley Curtain” still takes my breath away.

The piece became mega-famous when it was the subject of the documentary Christo’s Valley Curtain, by Albert Maysles and David Maysles, which was an art-house hit and nominated for an Oscar. The film records the arduous effort of erecting the curtain on August 10, 1972, and then the even more challenging, hurried removal of it on August 11, only 28 hours later, owing to gale-force winds, which were sadly tearing it apart. It didn’t matter that the piece ripped, though — this was a home run for Christo.

Colorado was a can-do place in those days, with vanguard stuff like the Gio Ponti-designed Denver Art Museum going up, the Criss-Cross movement flourishing, and the "Sleeper house" landing, but in the last decade or so, we’ve become a can’t-do kind of place. And that brings us to the Colorado project by Christo that would have made a great bookend to “Valley Curtain": the proposed but never-realized “Over the River,” which the artist himself canceled in 2016 in the wake of the election of Donald Trump.

The idea came to Christo in 1992, before he’d even chosen a river. Now collaborating with Jeanne-Claude, he intended to mount horizontal awnings over a curving river that had flat areas on either side of its shores, so that visitors could walk along the river underneath. The river also needed to have steep banks, to allow for sunscreens to be anchored. And finally, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wanted a highway running alongside, so that the piece could be viewed by people in their cars. The Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City filled the bill perfectly, and the artist-pair intended to suspend six miles of silvery fabric intermittently along 42 miles of the river. By 2009, Christo and Jeanne-Claude had secured all the necessary permits to go forward, but sadly, Jeanne-Claude died that same year. Nevertheless, Christo still wanted to complete the piece.

Trouble was looming, though, for “Over the River," after a bunch of do-bad-ers formed a group that filed suits against the Colorado Department of Parks in Colorado state court and the Bureau of Land Management in U.S. federal court, in each case to overturn a previous greenlighting of the project. These naysayers were mostly motivated by their complete contempt for contemporary art. And we know that’s the case as soon as we hear what the group’s name was: Rags Over the Arkansas River (ROAR), which was really meant to degrade Christo’s accomplishments and, by extension, to ridicule anyone who appreciates them. Though he’d win every round, even this last conflict with ROAR, Christo ultimately threw in the towel.

In the preceding decade or so, when Christo and Jeanne-Claude were in and out of town many times — for exhibits at the Center for Visual Art, Robischon Gallery, the Denver Art Museum and MCA Denver — I got the chance to meet and interview them.

Several years ago, after Jeanne-Claude had passed away, I spent the day with Christo at the Denver Art Museum, which was screening a group of films about the two, including Christo’s Valley Curtain. Between the films, I asked Christo questions while we sat on stage, and he explained his working relationship with Jeanne-Claude.

While the two both worked on all the projects, only one or the other took the lead conceptually. Christo created all the drawings depicting the proposed projects, but only some of them were his idea, and others were hers. The author of the ideas is easy to distinguish once you know this, with the intrusions into the landscape in the form of lines or planes, as in “Valley Curtain” or “Over the River,” coming from Christo, while the aggregations of repeated shapes in the landscape, like “Surrounded Islands” or “The Gates,” are by Jeanne-Claude.

The lost opportunity of the axed “Over the River” hurts, and it’s yet another nick in our state’s less than stellar commitment to art and culture. But even though Christo and Jeanne-Claude are both gone, they left behind a lot of evidence of how much Colorado meant to them in the form of drawings, prints, mixed-media collages and photos of “Valley Curtain” and “Over the River."

A decision was made that, in line with Christo’s intentions, his studio would complete the project he was working on when he died: “L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped,” which will be unveiled in Paris in the fall of 2021. Come to think of it, Paris is the perfect place for his final act, since that’s where it all began for him.