With the opening of the much-anticipated exhibition Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence, Eye Level had a chance to speak with Christo about the making of the original outdoor installation, Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76.
Eye Level: The Running Fence has multiple stories to tell. What story will be told in the exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum?
Christo: The exhibition is about the making of the Running Fence. There were many parts to the project that could not be seen in photos or drawings, such as the public hearings for permits. Roughly three hundred items went into making the Running Fence. The project was organized by Jeanne-Claude and myself, and we put together the archives [acquired by the Museum in 2008], very important material, to translate the making of the project. That is why the photographs on exhibit will not only show the objects, but also reveal the process of making the project: the landowners, the fabrication, materials, installation of the anchors in the ground, the cables—all these things were an integral part of the creative process.
EL: Tell us a little about the archives that you and Jeanne-Claude put together.
Christo: Jeanne-Claude and I made a point that because our work is temporary the record of that project needs to be very accurate, because art historians can make all different kinds of interpretations. The exhibition tries to make the point of exactly what the project is. The exhibition also translates the Running Fence chronologically, from the beginning when we didn’t have a site, to scouting for the site, using wooden poles in the first drawings and collages, because I was thinking about using wooden poles before working with our own engineer. The exhibition is the entire story of the making of the Running Fence.
EL: How did you determine that the Fence would be 24.5 miles long?
Christo: In 1972, we started with the idea of doing a project that involved the life of the people related to the ocean from the urban, rural, to the countryside in California. And this is why the Running Fence is 24.5 miles: Because the Fence crosses from the rural area near the coast to the suburban area at Petaluma and finally crosses the highway, Route 101. In California the highway is very important, and the closest highway ran 24.5 miles from the coast. If the highway had been ten miles from the coast, the Fence would have been only ten miles. The project translates crossing fourteen county roads and small roads until crossing the important Route 101 running north and south from San Diego to the Oregon border. And of course, using the land of the 59 ranchers and public space—all of this exactly reflects how the people in California use the land from rural, suburban, to the urban space.
EL: Were you considering other spaces in California?
Christo: Yes, of course. The project was to be done in California because of the coastal culture. California's coastline is much more hospitable than the East Coast, where we have winter. People live much more horizontally in California as opposed to here [in New York City], where people live vertically. Jeanne-Claude and I scouted California from the north to the south. We recognized three possible locations: one near Petaluma (which we chose), one north of our location, near Eureka and the Oregon border, and one in San Luis Obispo, between San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are two ways Jeanne-Claude and I do our projects: for the first, we have existing sites like Central Park [The Gates], the Reichstag [Wrapped Reichstag], the Pont Neuf [Pont Neuf, Wrapped, Paris], or the second, where we need to find a site, as we did for Valley Curtain, Umbrellas, Running Fence, and our current project, Over the River. Because we are never sure that we can get permissions for our locations, we need to have at least two to three choices for the project so that we can work out the permit process.
EL: When you and Jeanne-Claude were growing up [she in Paris and Casablanca, and Christo in Bulgaria], did California have a certain appeal or mystique?
Christo: Jeanne-Claude and I first discovered California in 1969 on the way to Australia. We stopped in California and spent time there. Of course, Running Fence is a linear project in its use of the land, so we tried to find topographically rich land. The coastline in the East is very flat, whereas in California the coastline grows dramatically from the beach to the hills and mountains. It was very important to have this land for Running Fence—the highway, the town, and the rural area—to use such dramatic landscape in our project.
EL: I’ve heard that people who work on the projects with you and Jeanne-Claude become like members of the family. How did that come about?
Christo: Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and I met in 1962 and we became very close friends. Albert already started filming our work in 1965. He did the Valley Curtain before the Running Fence. They became like family. Their 1978 film of Running Fence is extremely valuable in grasping how the project came to fruition. They translated the invisible parts, because many people do not know about that—the public hearings, the close cooperation with our very brilliant engineers, the local people such as surveyors and lawyers we hired to help realize the project.
EL: I was thinking of the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall,” with the line: ‘good fences make good neighbors’. But the Running Fence didn’t divide the way fences do, but brought people together.
Christo: Yes, exactly. We were very eager to design the route of the Fence to cross fourteen roads, so people could see it where it crossed a road. We wanted the entire length of the Fence to run in relation to man-made structures—a house, a farm, a barn, a farmer’s fence. This is why the Fence is running in the hills, not just for aesthetic reasons but to give continuous relation to man-made structures. Also, with all our projects we need to find very descriptive titles, again not just for aesthetic reasons but because we try to be extremely descriptive in the title and not mislead people. The Fence wasn’t fencing anything except running to the hills.
EL: Once you and Jeanne-Claude began work on Running Fence, did you fall in love with the California landscape?
Christo: We fall in love with all the landscapes we use in our projects. We fell in love with the coastline of Australia in 1968-69. We fell in love with the Rocky Mountains with Valley Curtain. Every project is a slice of our lives, a particular moment in our lives, and we’ll never do it again. This is an absolutely unique image, meaning there will be no other Running Fence, no other Gates, no other Valley Curtain, no other Surrounded Islands. Unlike other artists we’re not transporting things around the world. This project is entirely designed for that specific landscape and nothing can be transported. Nobody can buy the work, nobody can own the work, and nobody can charge tickets for the work. We do not own the projects, they are beyond the ownership of the artists because freedom is the enemy of possession, that’s why these projects do not stay. They are absolutely related to artistic and aesthetic freedom.
EL: Tell me about the early stages of the Running Fence.
Christo: The idea for all our projects, not only Running Fence, starts with sketches. These were very clumsy drawings. [Over time,] the project gets crystallized. For Running Fence, we did several life-size tests to see how it should be built. We built a 200-300-foot fence in Colorado near the Wyoming border, and studied it to determine what kind of steel cable to use, what kind of fabric, how to sew the fabric. For all our projects we did the same thing. A smaller one-to-one scale model is the only way to finalize and crystallize both aesthetics and engineering: how the project will look, how it will be built. From the earliest sketches [in the first room of the exhibition] with very heavy, clumsy poles to the end with very elegant, aesthetically chosen pole attachments and in-ground anchors and arches when the wind is blowing. This is why we don’t do the drawings in the studio and try to apply our vision cosmetically. The goal is to refine a very long and very important process with myself, Jeanne-Claude, and the engineers. It’s always about aesthetics: finding the right pole, going to the very slim pole from the heavy wooden one. By testing anchors in the ground we could see ribs in the fabric when the wind is blowing; these ribs did not exist in the early drawings. Each panel of 60 feet has two ribs very precisely, held by anchors attached to the ground. In the first panel [we tested] the fabric lays like nothing, with no dynamic. [The final fabric was chosen] because we had a life-size test. The three arches did not come from imagination.
EL: What did the first drawings look like?
Christo: The first drawing has very little drawing, done on brown paper with very little text underneath. [There are also] one or two collages with the heavy poles and no guy wires. This is why the exhibition shows the making of the project. [Visitors] coming to the exhibition should really take the time to look at these things. [Jeanne-Claude and I] went through a very painstaking process to keep a record and archive the materials.
EL: You and Jeanne-Claude pride yourselves on recycling, and the Running Fence was the first major art project to include an Environmental Impact Report. Can you explain?
Christo: It’s common sense. The material is extremely valuable and it’s only used for two weeks. After two weeks it has a valuable use. For the Running Fence we went with a community, and the landowners were eager to have the poles, the cables, and the fabric for a variety of uses. They used the posts for building their own fences and to build cattle guards (where the ranchers put in the ground poles so that the cattle cannot go over; the cattle are scared to walk over horizontally placed poles). And of course they used the fabric for their barns and the cable.
EL: Didn’t one of the ranchers also use the fabric to make a wedding dress for his daughter?
Christo: Yes, but it wasn’t really workable, too heavy for a wedding dress. The fabric is heavy woven industrial textile. This was in the early '70s, when the auto industry was very eager to develop the idea of the airbag. They asked the textile designer Jeffrey Stevens for very heavy woven fabric to be tested for airbags. It was very wide fabric, and when General Motors received the fabric it was considered too wide. They needed a narrower fabric. This is why we used that fabric. We needed a wide woven fabric with fewer seams in our 60-foot panels, and this was an incredible chance to have that fabric.
EL: One of the most poetic images is when the Running Fence goes into the Pacific Ocean at Bodega Bay. To me, my imagination follows it and it keeps going. Should it keep going?
Christo: The Fence has no end or start, only east and west, even when it is crossing Highway 101, up Meacham Hill. There is an eastern extremity and a western extremity. This is why it was important to have the ocean, because we have an incredible connection to the surf and the water, which gives incredible movement to the fabric. The fabric is moved by the motion of the water but also by the wind. The fabric shows the folds of the wind. When the wind is blowing behind, it billows like a pillow or balloon. On the other side is the complete negative.
EL: And it also caught the light.
Christo: The nylon is used very much in translating the light. It’s a light conductor. This accounts for the incredible visibility of the project.
EL:There was also a certain sound to it.
Christo: I remember David Maysles, who passed away in ’87, was going around recording the sound. He said it sounded like the sounds of the Buddhist monks due to the little clicking of the metal poles.
EL: Is there a story, too, about the poles?
Christo: We desperately needed to buy all these poles inexpensively. It was 1975 and the Vietnam war was ending. The U.S. Army had a huge amount of poles in Texas, because they used these poles to build the military airports in Vietnam. We were so happy to be able to buy these poles from army surplus.
EL: It’s amazing that something that was built for a war now went into a work of art.
Christo: Yes, all that went into the making of the Running Fence.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence opens Friday and runs through September 26.