On August 10, 1972, the artist Christo unfurled his work “Valley Curtain” across Rifle Gap in Rifle, Colo. The piece involved over 200,000 square feet of sunset-hued nylon fabric that was slung across a quarter mile span between the valley walls. It took more than two years for Christo to realize his work, and the piece was torn down by the wind in less than two days.
Christo’s official Facebook page announced on May 31, 2020 that the artist had died at the age of 84. Despite the fleeting nature of his work, according to those who saw “Valley Curtain” and other installations, his impact on the art world will be hard to forget.
In Rifle, those 28 hours that “Valley Curtain” spanned the canyon didn’t go off without a hitch. Dan Telleen is a jewelry maker in Vail; he was participating in an artists’ workshop in Vail with a dozen other artisans when they heard Christo would be unfurling “Valley Curtain” the next day. They loaded up a few cars and drove to the site, but when they arrived, things weren’t going according to plan.
“The idea was that at one end of the canyon, they’d undo the daisy stitch and the weight of the curtain falling out of the package would just push the daisy stitch open for a quarter of a mile across the canyon,” remembered Telleen. “And it stuck. We were all excited to see this happen—kids had come from all over to work on the project.”
Telleen ended up getting roped in to working a tie down station on the canyon wall waiting for the curtain to drop. Christo and his team tugged on the line for more than a day while it was suspended by a cable in a tight cocoon of fabric. The moment it unfurled was one that Telleen will never forget.
“Finally, the wind changed and it took that curtain and bellowed it out,” he said. “It just busted through that daisy stitch and the curtain fell out and came roaring across the canyon. It sounded like a freight train.”
An Impermanent Body of Work
“Valley Curtain” was one of Christo’s early pieces. His body of work included nearly two dozen large scale installations. “Running Fence” followed shortly after “Valley Curtain,” and garnered wide-spread attention for its 24.5 miles of fabric that cut through Sonoma and Marin counties in California. He’d go on to wrap Paris’s oldest bridge, the Pont Neuf, in silky fabric, envelop Berlin’s Reichstag in textiles and erect thousands of gates through New York City’s Central Park. In 2016, he designed an oversized, floating yellow walkway across Italy’s Lake Iseo.
“I had seen photographs of the ‘Wrapped Coast,’” said Wolfgang Volz of the artist’s one million square feet of fabric that draped over a section of Australian coastline in the late 60s. “I had a chance to meet Christo at an exhibition in Germany. We immediately communicated on a very basic level and the chemistry was excellent, so half a year later Christo called me—at that time I was still studying photography—and asked me whether I wanted to come to Rifle and see the Valley Curtain.”
Volz took him up on it, and arrived in Rifle to photograph the installation. He’d be Christo’s primary photographer for the next 48 years, and many of the most iconic images of the artist’s installations are with his lens.
Christo’s wife, Jeanne-Claude, was the most central figure in his work. Christo designed the installations, and Jeanne-Claude often handled the logistics foreach piece.
“Their work and the way they work has probably been empowering to a lot of artists who do work in the public domain,” said Jim Baker, former executive director of Anderson Ranch Arts Center, who spent time with the couple. Baker also interviewed Christo and Jeanne-Claude for his interview show on Aspen Public Radio in 2001.
“I don’t know of anyone that worked that way before them with engaging with permitting and community meetings and the back and forth that would happen there in the planning process of the pieces,” he said.
The couple never accepted public grants or corporate money for their work, and they sold Christo’s sketches of past projects to independently fund future installations. They never accepted volunteers for site installations —Jeanne-Claude’s mother and a handful of artists on “Wrapped Coast” being the only exception — and instead hired workers for each project. Many of them were aspiring or established artists.
“They were very thoughtful, very determined in what they did,” said Baker. “I think a lot of the joy for them was watching other people look at their work and experience it.”
Key to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s pieces were that all but one lasted no more than two weeks. Only “The Mustaba,” a trapezoidal structure in Abu Dhabi, is still standing.
“Because we’re impermanent, and the uniqueness of impermanence,” Christo explained of his pieces in an interview with Colorado Public Radio back in 2014. “And this is why we never do the same thing again. It’s because the project exists in these precious two weeks and if you don’t see it you don’t know. You see photographs, films, but it’s not the same things. It cannot be substituted. It’s like our lives. If you’re there, then it’s infected in your brain forever.”
Their art depended on local support, and was often celebrated in the communities they chose for their installations, but they attracted controversy, too. Each project took years of public hearings and involved lengthy permitting processes, and not all of their work came to fruition. “Over the River,” a piece that involved 6 miles of fabric criss-crossing above a section of the Arkansas River near Salida, faced decades of community pushback and court fights.
In 2017, Christo announced in a statement, “After pursuing ‘Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado,’ for 20 years and going through 5 years of legal arguments, I no longer wish to wait on the outcome.”
“Some people simply just don’t want the environment that they love in the way they’ve loved it, especially in a state like Colorado—it doesn’t matter if the piece will be taken down with no impact on the environment at all,” said Baker. “They just don’t want to wake up and see fabric draped over a river they like.”
A Permanent Legacy
Jeanne Claude passed away in 2009, and Christo died in the New York City home they had shared for most of their lives. Aside from some anchors still bolted to the rock in Rifle, nothing’s left of “Valley Curtain.” Although, the project was the subject of an Oscar-nominated short documentary called “Christo’s Valley Curtain” by Maysles Films, Incorporated.
“The work exists for a very short time, and I photograph it, and the photographs, they continue to exist,” said Volz. “I’m absolutely sure that in my 55 years of experience as a photographer, I cannot think of anything else that ever had such a visual effect on me other than the works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.”
A handful of artists, including Telleen, would continue to work on other projects with Christo and Jeanne-Claude for decades after the unfurling of “Valley Curtain” in Rifle Gap.
“Working on something bigger than yourselves is important to do I think,” said Telleen. “I haven’t ever been involved in anything else like that.”
He said the artist’s pursuit of impermanence will forever leave a mark.
“In the night the wind tore it (the curtain) and the project was over,” Telleen said. “Things aren’t permanent and an important piece of art reflects the society that it comes from.”