Fencing with Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972–76, © Christo, 1976, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum Purchase, Photo by Wolfgang Volz

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, partners in art and in life, were on hand at SAAM Saturday afternoon for a screening of Running Fence, the film about the making of their 1976 project in northern California. SAAM just acquired documentary material and artwork from Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972–76. The film showed the artists' four-year struggle to get permits and permissions from the 59 ranchers whose land the 24 1/2–mile fence would traverse. It was an uphill battle, so to speak, and raised the eternal question, what is art? Early in the film one of the local naysayers says, "What art is that? I bet he can't even paint a picture."

The artists, who have been working together since the 1950s, finish one another's sentences. They charmed the audience, who came to learn more about their outdoor installations—which usually last no more than two weeks. "On Planet Earth there is no forever," Jeanne-Claude told one member of the audience who asked if they ever planned to do something more permanent. "Everything is more or less temporary."

When the physical object Running Fence was dismantled two weeks after it was installed, Christo and Jeanne-Claude gave the materials—fabric, poles, cables—to the ranchers. Months later they learned that one of the ranchers had a wedding dress made for his daughter from the nylon. "Not a very comfortable dress," Christo noted.

The nylon material was chosen for its strength and for its ability to reflect light and hold the strong Pacific wind. The fence came to life as it undulated with changing light and wind, as if it were breathing. At one point while the artists were  speaking, Christo walked into an unlit area of the stage and Jeanne-Claude pulled him back into the light. It seemed a perfect metaphor for two artists who work so closely together.

During the last question of the afternoon, they were asked about their fifty years of working together, to which Jeanne-Claude responded, "We're just starting."

In 2010 Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972–76, A Documentation Exhibition will open at SAAM and then will travel...perhaps even all the way back to the west coast.