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Blowin' in the Wind: Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Art in the Public Realm

Christo and Jeanne-Claude looking for a possible site for The Mastaba, February 1982 Photo Wolfgang Volz HEADER
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Christo and Jeanne-Claude The Umbrellas, Japan-USA, 1984-91 Blue 2
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "The Umbrellas,"Japan-USA, 1984-91. | Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1991 Christo.

Art in the public realm challenges our understanding of engagement, interaction and memory, testing our belief that the world around us is a wonderland of curiosity, discovery, and indefinite knowledge. Public artwork often endures acclaim and controversy in the communal and ecological fields of a mired social landscape. After first meeting in 1958, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have pioneered a legacy of environmental art which has both encountered debate and expanded the role of art in public/private interactions to redefine our awareness and recognition of work in the social sphere.

Their most recent artwork, “The Floating Piers,” was on view June 18 through July 3, transforming Italy’s Lake Iseo with a modular floating dock system covered in a shimmering yellow fabric that turned shades of red and gold throughout the 16-day exhibition. Although free and open to the public, visitors were encouraged to check the weather forecast as rain and strong winds limited admission to the project, and tested the limits of public access due to natural elements -- a situation familiar to Christo and Jeanne-Claude and their history of environment projects.

The Umbrellas

Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The Umbrellas, Japan-USA, 1984-91.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "The Umbrellas," Japan-USA, 1984-91.  | Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1991 Christo.

Near the top of the northwestern corner of Los Angeles County where the Sierra Pelona, Tehachapi, and San Emigdio Mountains meet, is a high pass that links Southern

California to the Central Valley. Today it is popularly known as the Grapevine, a notorious road of traffic jams, overheated engines, and weather closures. The highly traversed route is “one of the oldest continuously used trail and roadside rest stops in California,” writes Bonnie Ketterl Kane in "A History of Gorman," as the Native Americans “would have stopped there when it was the Tataviam village of Kulshra'jek." 1 The mountain meadows, streams, and panoramic valley views make it a popular stop for contemporary travelers, with California poppies, lupines, and other springtime wildflowers surfacing from the chaparral to cover the hills in hues of blue and yellow when there is sufficient rain.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude The Umbrellas, Japan-USA, 1984-91 Yellow
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "The Umbrellas," Japan-USA, 1984-91.  | Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1991 Christo.

At this site on October 9 1991, environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude began the opening of 3,100 umbrellas in a sprawling temporary work of public art intended to reflect similarities and differences in the ways of life and the use of the land of two inland valley locations across the Pacific Ocean. Eighteen miles along Interstate 5 between Gorman and the Grapevine blossomed with the daffodil yellow color of the umbrellas positioned on the properties of Tejon Ranch and private landowners. In synchronicity with the California site, 12 miles of cobalt blue umbrellas were hoisted north of Tokyo, Japan around Route 349 and the Sato River, in the prefecture of Ibaraki. The blue and yellow colors of the umbrellas were selected to emulate the landscape of Japan's watery rice field geography, in contrast with the arid grassland of the California high desert.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude The Umbrellas, Japan-USA, 1984-91 Blue
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "The Umbrellas," Japan-USA, 1984-91.  | Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1991 Christo.

Each umbrella stood more than 19 feet high, opened to a 28-foot diameter, and weighed 448 pounds generating an environmental exhibition that allowed the public to interact, touch, photograph and experience the installations. “The Umbrellas” were designed to be enjoyed as free standing modules, which Christo and Jeanne-Claude described as "a symbol for shelter, against both rain and sun. It is an image that is easily understood, by any age, any country, any civilization, and this, for the past 4,800 years, since the umbrella shape was invented in Mesopotamia." 2 The thousands of giant umbrellas placed alongside rivers, roads, and throughout the surrounding landscape created a temporary settlement for picnics, tourism, weddings and unexpectedly, the deaths of a tourist in California, and a worker in Japan.

Looking at topographic maps, and through the inspiration of walking, climbing, and surveying the land, the 3,100 umbrellas used in the project were chosen as the artists laid out their design in response to the two landscapes. Jeanne-Claude had wanted to limit the number and maximum cost of the project to 3,000 umbrellas, however the final count of 3,100 umbrellas reflected the aesthetics of the environment rather than any financial concerns over the budget. The reported $26 million cost of the project was financed by The Umbrellas, Joint Project for Japan and U.S.A. Corporation with the artists as presidents. Following a funding model that the artists employ to finance their works, “The Umbrellas” used no public or corporate sponsorship, relying instead on the sale of Christo's affiliate ephemera including studies, preparatory drawings, collages, scale models and original lithographs, which were sold to art collectors, museums and galleries. 

Christo  The Umbrellas (Joint Project for Japan and USA)  Collage 1990 in two parts
Christo, "The Umbrellas" (Joint Project for Japan and USA), 1990. Pencil, fabric, charcoal, pastel, wax crayon, enamel paint and topographic map. 26 1/4 x 12 in. and 26 1/4 x 30 1/2 in.  |  Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1990 Christo Ref. # 165.

Most artwork created in the public realm is subject to extensive budget accountability and transparency of public funding. Christo and Jeanne-Claude chose to retain control of their work by acting as their own art dealers, operating a business model that doesn't accept grants or licensing deals to assure they retained artistic freedom and ultimately financial management over their work. Without publicly reported financials, the artists are often accused of conceptually inflating the costs of their projects including the $26 million price tag attributed to “The Umbrellas.” "We are borrowing a very complex public space for the work of art," Christo explained, "we would have never talked to the Japanese farmers or the California state agencies, cowboys, rangers, if one of them was not absolutely sure that we would like to spend 26 million, not a conceptual 26 million to realize ‘The Umbrellas.’" 3

Working within the complex social context of public space requires an artist to consider the multiple perspectives and framework for display, participation and reception. In the 1979 catalog for “Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture,” Robert Morris addressed the question, "what is public art?" asking, "If there is such a thing as public art, what then is private art? I think we would agree that whatever else it might or might not be, the term public art has come to designate works not found in galleries or museums (which are public spaces), but frequently in association with public buildings, and funded with public monies." 4 Working outside the institutional model of art production, Christo and Jeanne-Claude envisioned the project as requiring a participatory public engagement model rather than a public funding framework.

The Role of Art in Social Issues 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude  The Umbrellas, Japan-USA, 1984-91 2
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "The Umbrellas," Japan-USA, 1984-91.  | Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1991 Christo.

Writing in “Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art” (1996), artist Judith Baca questions the Tejon “Umbrellas” project and its public obligation with her critique in "Whose Monument Where? Public Art in a Many-Cultured Society," which implores the problem of social engagement in the work on its intended public and site-specific purpose:

"When Christo, for example, looked for the first time at El Tejon Pass, he saw potential... The land became his canvas, a backdrop for his personal aesthetic… perhaps Native peoples could not think of this area without recalling Fort Tejon, one of the first California Indian reservations established near this site in the Tehachapi Mountains, placed there to 'protect' Indians rounded up from various neighboring areas, most of whose cultures have been entirely destroyed. In Christo's and the Native visions we have two different aesthetic sensibilities." 5 

The political implications and consequences of public artworks in the public sphere are multifaceted and interconnected. If a community-based work simultaneously displaces yet integrates people into the process, its history and the lifespan of the work, is it socially responsible? Does this social engagement and participatory public interaction assimilate the diversity of perspective and personal stories into a narrative of institutional uniformity devoid of the nuances of a many-cultured society now rendered gray?

Christo and Jeanne-Claude  Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "Surrounded Islands," Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83.  | Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1976 Christo.

In the 1980s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's “Surrounded Islands” swirled in public controversy "generating strong community opposition from environmental and civic organizations, boating and fishing groups, and area residents." 6 The public backlash reinforced Morris' question regarding "the assumption that there is something especially relevant to and open for the public in these projects, that they defend an aggressive, non-elitist, an even anti-museum stance, while at the same time counting as advanced art." 7 The remarks indicate the curious involvement of the public in art -- as individuals, society, or government finances and the ways in which public art can fracture space or the environment regardless of whether it’s inside an institution or outside of it. 

Between Object and Speculation

Christo  The Mastaba of Abu Dhabi (Project for United Arab Emirates)  Scale model 1979
Christo, "The Mastaba of Abu Dhabi" (Project for United Arab Emirates), 1979. Enamel paint, wood, paint, sand and cardboard. 32 1/2 x 96 x 96 in. |  Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1979 Christo.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's artworks are interventions into a given environment, and because the works are temporary, the art is given life not just through the physical object, but the extensive visual documentation, and perhaps more importantly the memory and experiences of those who interacted with the work. The actual physical objects they use may be dismantled, recycled or repurposed for construction or ecological uses after their installation, however, the works are intentionally conceived as the mental property of the people who experienced and interacted with the works. This speculative design, creation and memory give the works a remarkable public sphere of life -- and perhaps spectacle -- in the maelstrom of social flux and change of time and imagination. Works such as “The Mastaba,” a project for Abu Dhabi which was conceived in 1977 and still awaits its construction, exist in the public sphere as proposed drawings, feasibility studies and friendships with the emirate or agencies who interact with the project in its initial entry as conception and proposal in the public realm.

Art as Public Space

Christo and Jeanne-Claude  Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "Running Fence," Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76.  | Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1976 Christo.

As public art, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's works paved new ground for the concept and practice of art in the public sphere creating not only the attributed discovery and experience, but conversations around environmental sustainability, public accountability and legal liability concerns that publicly funded entities have wrangled with since art in social and public space left the building. “Running Fence,” a structure of white nylon fabric hung from a steel cable is not only a large installation that augmented the topography of the land between Sonoma and Marin Counties, but it relayed the story of the people, places and events that occurred during the project’s installation in 1976. 

The project consisted of the temporary use of the hills, the sky and the ocean, and 42 months of collaborative efforts, 18 public hearings, three sessions at the superior courts of California, and the drafting of an Environmental Impact Report – the first report “ever created for a work of art.” 8 As such, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's works have continued to challenge and drive the development of legal precedents for artistic interaction in the environment and public spaces. The impact of this contribution to the generation of dialogue, and eventual regulations around the controversial scope of public art in public space, has had numerous ramifications for the practice of art in relation to the institution and participation of art.

Controversial Participation

Christo, Over the River (Project for Arkansas River, State of Colorado)
Christo, "Over the River" (Project for Arkansas River, State of Colorado), 2010. Pencil, pastel, charcoal, wax crayon, enamel paint, wash, fabric sample, hand-drawn topographic map and technical data. 15 x 96 in. and 42 x 96 in. |  Photo: André Grossmann. © 2010 Christo.

Conceived in 1992, “Over The River” proposes to install 5.9 miles of silvery, luminous fabric panels to be suspended above the water along a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River between Cañon City and Salida in south-central Colorado. The eight distinct areas selected by Christo and Jeanne-Claude for aesthetic merits and technical capacity offer "two different viewing experiences: one from the highway where the fabric will reflect the colors of the sky, from the golden morning sunlight to the various hues of the sunset; the other from the water level, where rafters, kayakers and canoeists will be able to view the clouds, sky and mountain contours through the translucent fabric." 9 In a continued dispute over the temporary installation and its effect on the ecology of the land, a local Colorado environmental group Rags Over the Arkansas River (ROAR) opposed to “Over The River,” filed lawsuits against the Colorado State Parks in state court and against the United States Federal Government, Bureau of Land Management in U.S. Federal Court. "It's too destructive to the people, to the environment and to the wildlife in Bighorn Sheep Canyon," said spokesperson Joan Anzelmo. 10

With the project caught in the court of appeals and counter arguments on the use of public space and inevitable opposing viewpoints, “Over The River” continues to find form in its prospective process. In addition, the first Environmental Impact Statement for a work of art was completed for the initiative. 11 The continued legal developments that Christo and Jeanne-Claude's works unveil, expose more than just the fabric of the public sphere, as the process unwraps that "political institutions are collections of interrelated rules and routines that define appropriate action in terms of relations between roles and situations." 12 The contested works engage discourse on culture and politics, asking "how can the enthusiastic resources of foundation and corporate America be applied to meet the needs of beneficiaries without distorting culture in the process?" 13 The struggle between ideology and the use of the environment and public space is fraught with differing opinions, perspectives, and implications in the institutional and diplomatic process.

It Cost How Much?   

The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005. Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "The Gates," Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005.  | Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 2005 Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

September 29, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary, and the signing date of President Lyndon B. Johnson's National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965. The act established the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, creating the partnership of state, local and other federal arts agencies along with the philanthropic sector to foster excellence in the arts, celebrate America’s cultural heritage, support arts learning, and promote access to the arts in every community. Unlike Christo and Jeanne-Claude's public financial "evasion" through fundraising as a private corporation, the NEA was notoriously subjected to the public money accountability question which led to the 1989 controversy over two federally funded projects: Andres Serrano's “Piss Christ” and Robert Mapplethorpe's “The Perfect Moment.”

The Helms Amendment required artists to promise they would not use government money to create works of an "obscene" nature, compromising the NEA's budget while threatening its elimination. Although the NEA Four -- Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller -- successfully sued the NEA over the decency clause, because its vague restrictions suppressed speech guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment, the accountability of public funding has continued to provoke controversy, culture wars and social conflicts of interest around public works of art.  

The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005. Christo and Jeanne-Claude 2
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "The Gates," Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005.  | Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 2005 Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

In 2005, “The Gates” in New York City’s Central Park attracted an estimated 4 million visitors, and generated more than $250 million in economic activity. The windblown saffron fabric panels which lined 23 miles of Central Park walkways endured  decades of opposition and controversy, requiring Christo and Jeanne-Claude to again address public concerns on their proposal, ranging from an influx of large crowds to toxic plastic and special interest funding. Eventually receiving a contract in 2003 from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the project was then realized two years later. Bloomberg purchased two drawings from the couple, which in part helped secure the funding necessary for the installation, instigating public scrutiny and frustration. His interests as a patron and a public servant increased the expectations for accountability to the community, and fueled speculation on the actual cost and impact of the project in the civic communal space of Central Park. 

The vague and estimated calculation of the millions invested in “The Gates” activated the argument over questions and interest in budget line analysis, and the quality of public impact versus a definable cost assessment in the value of the work. Would openly reported funding help quantify an artworks success in concrete financial numbers or help define its quality? Lurking and vacillating below the surface of public projects is the dissonance between audiences and stakeholders, where funding and intentions can be more subversive than what the activist and populist evaluation of public art lets on. In response to the claims of estimated funding, Christo has pointedly asked, "how do you calculate 26 years of meetings, negotiations, planning, design?" 14 

Weathering Controversy 

Valley Curtain, Rifle, Colorado, 1970-72. | Photo: Wolfgang Volz © Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "Valley Curtain," Rifle, Colorado, 1970-72. | Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1972 Christo.

The public is not the only critic of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's artwork as several works have been subjected to a type of ecological censorship. Prior to the wind and lightening blowing over “The Umbrellas,” which resulted in two deaths from each of the respective environmental conditions in the USA-Japan project, “Valley Curtain,” an orange cocoon suspended at Rifle Gap between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs in Colorado, began unraveling due to a gale force wind estimated in excess of 60 mph. Just 28 hours after completion of the curtain installation, the windy landscape dictated it necessary to start the removal of the project. Christo explains, "The world can live without 'Umbrellas,' without 'Valley Curtain' or 'Running Fence.' They have no other reason to be there except poetical creativity, total creativity. That freedom is the most important part of this project and this is why they cannot stay, because freedom is the enemy of possession and possession is equal to permanence." 15

Christo and Jeanne-Claude -- the latter, who passed away in 2009 -- have weathered public and ecological controversy surrounding their works since they began questioning the role of art in public/private programming, and the meaning of environmental artwork. Their pursuit of works in the social landscape has challenged, defined and redefined understanding and acceptance of art in the public sphere. The works they have created provoke a sense of memory and participation. They have built spaces where art can question our understanding of existence -- here and beyond. Lyrically, whether we choose to value “The Umbrellas,” “The Gates,” “Over the River,” or “Valley Curtain” past the financial numbers, or as a reflection and debate of the social experience of art in the controversial agora of social territory, the answer, as Bob Dylan implores in his protest song, is blowin' in the wind.


1 Ketterl Kane, Bonnie. (2002). "A History of Gorman." 
2 Jeanne-Claude. (1998). "Most Common Errors." 
3 Mantegna, Gianfranco. "Christo and Jeanne-Claude." (1995). Journal of Contemporary Art 7.2. 
4 Morris, Robert. (1979). "Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture." 
5 Baca, Judy. (1996). "Whose Monument Where? Public Art in a Many-Cultured Society." In Suzanne Lacy (Ed.) Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. 
6 Bennetts, Leslie. (1982, December 28). "Christo will Wrap 11 Islands in Pink." The New York Times. 
7 Morris, Robert. (1979). "Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture."
8 Sonoma County Planning Department, Santa Rosa, California. (1975). "Final Environmental Impact Report: Running Fence." 
9 Christo. (n.d.) "Over The River Project for Arkansas River," State of Colorado FAQs.
10 Blevins, Jason. (2015, January 6). "Foes vow continued fight against Christo’s Over The River project." The Denver Post.
11 "U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management." (2011). Environmental Impact Statement.
12 March, James G. & Olsen, Johan, P. (1989)." Rediscovering Institutions: The Organizational Basis of Politics." New York, NY: The Free Press.
13 Tepper, Steven J. (2012). "The Social Nature of Offense and Public Protest over Art and Culture." Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, Vol 23, No 3.
14 McIntire, Mike. (2005, March 5). "Enough About 'Gates' as Art; Let's Talk About That Price Tag." The New York Times.
15 Mantegna, Gianfranco. "Christo and Jeanne-Claude." (1995). Journal of Contemporary Art 7.2.

Top image: Christo and Jeanne-Claude looking for a possible site for The Mastaba, February 1982. | Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1982 Christo.

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