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Local exhibit documents ambitious art projects

“Orange Store Front” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. (Courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum)

“Orange Store Front” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. (Courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum)

Art is nothing if not audacious.

Michelangelo spent four years on his back painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Impressionists shattered all the rules of the conventional French salons; even the term was derisive.

Many art watchers and detractors remember Christo as the guy who wraps things – a Parisian bridge, a Rocky Mountain valley, an Australian coastline, even the Berlin Reichstag. In the 1970s, the artist and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, spent 42 months erecting “Running Fence” across California’s Sonoma and Marin counties. The couple financed their projects across more than 40 years by selling art. They accepted no donations, gifts or grants.

“Christo & Jeanne-Claude: The Tom Golden Collection” from the Sonoma County Museum will showcase that artwork beginning Saturday. The sweeping collection includes drawings, collages and prints. Public programs will feature a three-part series of documentaries by Albert and David Maysles (“Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens”) on “Running Fence,” “Islands” and “Umbrellas.”

Golden met the duo during the northern California public hearings for “Running Fence.” The project crossed the private property of 59 ranchers with veiled fences of white nylon fabric. Intrigued, Golden continued to manage and work with them on several of their massive installations, including “The Umbrellas” in California and Colorado’s “Over the River.”

“The Pont Neuf Wrapped,” project for Paris, 1975-85, 1992, by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

“The Pont Neuf Wrapped,” project for Paris, 1975-85, 1992, by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Christo was famously succinct when asked about the meaning and purpose of his work.

“He says it’s completely irrational,” museum curator Andrew Connors said. “There is no reason to do this.”

When a California rancher asked what the 24.5-mile-long “Running Fence” was for, the artist replied, “inspiration and beauty.”

“There’s something very wonderful about people who don’t ask for anything except for our permission to inspire,” Connors said.

Christo said, “I could have a fleet of Rolls Royces, but I make art with my money.”

The projects remain for two weeks, then the artist and a team of helpers tear them down for recycling.

Christo spent from 1979 to 2005 trying to get permission to hang “The Gates,” a series of 7,000 saffron-colored panels in New York’s Central Park. He was finally able to launch the installation after Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a fan, gave his permission. Christo and Jeanne-Claude raised $21 million to fund the idea. They paid 750 employees to erect the project in five days. About 600 “gatekeepers” distributed 1 million free samples of the fabric to visitors.

“Everybody from the homeless to Park Avenue billionaires could experience his artwork in the same way,” Connors said.

Born in Bulgaria, Christo had always been intrigued by shapes. He started by taking objects – a bowl or even trash – and wrapping them in painted fabric.

“As he developed his aesthetic, he realized the fabric was everything,” Connors said. “He didn’t need to paint them.”

Connors still remembers the impact of seeing 1970’s “Valley Curtain” as a 9-year-old near Rifle, Colo. That project required 200,000 square feet of orange woven nylon fabric spanning two mountain slopes. Wind gusts necessitated its tear-down just 28 hours later.

“As a kid, it was just so amazing that somebody would attempt something like this,” he said. “And that it will live on in somebody’s memory – not just in somebody’s private collection.”

The artist has yet to complete the controversial “Over the River,” slated for the Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City, Colo. The scenic area is known as Bighorn Sheep Canyon. Christo designed translucent blue curtains to undulate on cables like waves. Supporters are hoping for a tourist boom while opponents fear ruining the area’s visual appeal and damaging the river ecosystem. A local rafting guide compared it to “hanging pornography in a church.”

A lawsuit filed against the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife by a local group called Rags Over the Arkansas River has so far blocked it. The artist spent $6 million on his own environmental studies, design and wind-tunnel testing of fabrics.

“The Gates,” project for Central Park, New York City, by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

“The Gates,” project for Central Park, New York City, by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

“Through that translucent fabric you’ll be able to see the clouds and the sky,” Connors said. “It will have this wonderful organic sequence of light and shadows.

“They clean up everything,” he insisted. “They take all the trash out. They replant areas that have been disturbed by machines and tools.”

The pair ran into similar objections in 1984 when they wrapped the Pont Neuf Bridge in Paris with 454,178 square feet of golden sandstone fabric. The city’s oldest bridge, the stone structure dates to 1578-1607.

“Boy, did that cause controversy in Paris,” Connors said. People said you shouldn’t desecrate a monument.

“So they don’t win over everybody. Some of us may be seduced and some of us may not. But I think it’s the audacity of their vision that is so unbelievable.”

Jeanne-Claude died in New York in 2009 of complications from a brain aneurysm.