Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence

April 2, 2010 — September 26, 2010

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
Media - 2009.9.18 - SAAM-2009.9.18_1 - 70302

Christo, Running Fence (Project for Sonoma and Marin Counties, State of California), 1976, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment © 1976, Christo

In 2008, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired the definitive record of Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76, a major early work by world-renowned artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Running Fence, the culmination of 42 months of collaborative efforts, was 24 1/2 miles long and 18 feet high, with one end dropping down to the Pacific Ocean. This monumental temporary artwork was made of 240,000 square yards of heavy woven white nylon fabric, 90 miles of steel cable, 2,050 steel poles, 350,000 hooks, and 13,000 earth anchors. Paid for entirely by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the completed Running Fence existed for only two weeks in September of 1976.

The exhibition presented the majority of individual items— more than 350 objects — from the collective archive of artworks and related materials. There were 46 original preparatory drawings and collages by Christo on display, including eight masterful, large-scale drawings, each 8 feet wide, and a 58-foot-long scale model. More than 240 photographs by Wolfgang Volz, Gianfranco Gorgoni and Harry Shunk reveal the complex process of constructing the Running Fence and the many personalities involved with the project. A sequence of 22-foot-wide high-definition images of Running Fence are projected at the exhibition entrance to convey to visitors the breadth and scale of the completed project. The exhibition also included components from the actual project, including a nylon fabric panel and steel pole that visitors can touch.

This exhibition is organized by George Gurney, deputy chief curator.

The museum is grateful for the honorary participation and encouragement of these distinguished Californians: Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House; Senator Dianne Feinstein; Senator Barbara Boxer; Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey; Congresswoman Doris Matsui; Attorney General Jerry Brown; and Mayor Gavin Newsom and First Lady Jennifer Newsom, San Francisco.

Exhibition Catalogue

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence

The dynamic partnership of Christo and Jeanne-Claude spans more than four decades, and their enormous outdoor art installations are known the world over. From 1972 to 1976, Christo and Jeanne-Claude conceived, planned, and created the Running Fence, an eighteen-foot-high white nylon fence that stretched more than twenty-four miles across privately owned lands in Marin and Sonoma counties in northern California. Four years in the planning, the Fence was on view for just two weeks, but it remains a landmark event in contemporary art.


  • On the occasion of the exhibition, Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence, Christo describes the making of the Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin Counties, California in the 1970s. He describes collaborating with with Jeanne-Claude, working with the ranchers, obtaining permits and the experience of it all. 

    CHRISTO: Back in the early ‘70s, actually 1970, we were scouting for "Valley Curtain," the project in Colorado, and often we’re crossing the Continental Divide, who is at the top of the Rocky Mountains. The United States Department of Interior built an aluminum fence to keep the snow separate. That's probably the first image of a fence running, even there are fences all around the world, running in all directions, but I see up in the top of the Rocky Mountains.

    Now I should say, my name is Christo, but I can tell one important part of the project is really the most missing part of the project is that Jeanne-Claude is not here today. She would tell you so much more stories with the ranchers, with the politicians, with the public hearings, with the publication, with the workers installation, all that there.

    The project, it was something unforgettable because we, myself and Jeanne-Claude, would learn so much of things we did not know. Each project for us is like university. We're so eager.

    We all were working together. There was no one moment separate. But ideas, it was coming sometimes from me, sometimes from her. It was very much like architects. There are a lot of similarities of architecture and urban planning. You need to compile thinking and proportion and put together pieces. That was also the story of "Running Fence." Both of us were familiar with the California landscape. It was important to build that fence between the ocean and the very busy road.

    But we would fight. We were absolutely the most argumentative people. We are really arguing very ferociously, somebody think like, we would never talk to each other together for the end of our life. But she was very, very argumentative. I also was very, very stubborn. This is probably the best thing because we are continually criticizing each other. That is very exciting.

    All our projects, they are temporary works of art. They stay for a short time. After two weeks, all the materials are removed and industrially recycled for other uses. They are very good materials: steel, pole, cables. When the product is removed, for all the projects—now I’m talking generally for all projects—we take components of the project like pole, cables, fabric, all these materials. We collect all the original drawings of the engineers, their paper, all kind of diagrams, and each of our projects has her own documentation exhibition. Now this exhibition is addressing the project from the genesis to the realization. I would like for people to understand that they can see the evolution of the project, or how the project is crystallized visually through reading the drawings. Because the very last drawing was done in 1976. They're much closer to the real thing because we almost put the poles in the landscape. In the first drawing, they are much more schematic, more clumsy, more abstract, more simple because we do not know how it will look in the landscape. Now, this is in this story of the original works of art. I did with my own hand. I use pencil, chalk, pastel, wax crayon. I glue often, and the drawings, the technical data diagrams. Often, I use photography. The little sketches in the exhibition, they are a study for the larger drawings.

    I did the first drawings, and it's called "Divide," and we find right away that the work is not a good divide because it is not division. Basically, it's running. I make 2 or 3 drawings, and right away, Jeanne and myself, we understand this very menacing title, not inviting title. This is why soon after that—that drawing was probably in early ‘73 or late ’72—it became "Running Fence."

    In the summer of 1973, Jeanne-Claude was driving me with our friend, photographer Harry Shunk, and we were scouting an area. We needed to find at least 2 or 3 possible sites. At least to be sure what site, and what site we have permission to do the project. Number one, the most preferable site, was Sonoma-Marin County, just north of San Francisco. This is how by late 1973 we decided that will be the site for the "Running Fence" project.

    Now, we were eager to do that in California. I was very fascinated by how the people live in California between the water, Pacific Ocean, with the continuous, coastal culture with that very hospitable, coastal line. Moving inland, when the people start to build their houses, the ranches they have on their property, they have their own fences, they have barns. Going to subdivision, we have a subdivision called "Happy Acres," very funny subdivision. Crossing one of the main preoccupations of California, the highways, and disappearing after the highways. The entire project was running with that rural land, subdivision, the small town of Petaluma.

    The scale of the project was really the average height of these barns and garages. The scale was something very related to the man-made structure in the landscape. Because only by having human activity, we can have a scale of the work of art.

    The project was scheduled to be done in '75. We discovered that, only once we got all the ranchers, we discovered that the big problems start with the governmental permission. We were believing that the ranchers were really the problem in the beginning, but there was no problem with the ranchers. It was hard, we need to convince some ranchers, we need to argue, but we were stopped with the governmental permits. It caused the committee to stop the "Running Fence," and it was taken to court. We go to the appellate court in San Francisco and finally we got the permission. The exhibition is a way to show the control of the ranchers and the way that public hearings is related because I should say, that without the rancher's support, we would never get the permission of the "Running Fence."

    Each of our projects have a unique image. We will never build another "Running Fence," never another “Surrounded Islands.” It is certainly, all our projects, they are like living objects. Much of the public sees the project in still photographs. To the still photography, you can have some idea, but if you see them in film, you can see much more of the energy the fabric is translating, the incredible force, and very invigorating, visible forms. Because we have extra fabric, it would move in the wind. The fabric was like at trap. The wind was traveling to the panels. We have a grommet, and the grommets have steel rings. The still rings of the grommet was, when the winds was blowing, it was touching the poles and it was making this sound like a Buddhist monk walking in the forest, and you have the sound in the fog.

    This continuous play of the wind and, in some way, the fabric was showing the wind. The wind, you cannot see it. Only by this energy of the fabric, you can see the physical, what the wind is doing.
    Media Series

    SAAM Stories

    Albert Maysles on Meeting - and Filming - Christo and Jeanne-Claude

    Filmmakers Albert Maysles and his brother, David (who died in 1987), are recognized as masters of "direct cinema," the American cousin of French "cinéma vérité." They first met Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the early 1960s and filmed many of their works over the decades, including two that will be screened at American Art's McEvoy Auditorium on April 29, at 6:30 pm: Valley Curtain (1973) and Christo in Paris (1986).

    Remembering the Running Fence with Joe Pozzi

    Joe Pozzi was only a boy when Christo and Jeanne-Claude approached his father for permission to erect The Running Fence on land that ran through their Sonoma County, California, property. We asked Joe if he would kindly share some of his memories of Christo and Jeanne-Claude and the Running Fence with us. The exhibition Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence closes on September 26.

    Picture This: Duct Tape and the Running Fence

    Running Fence, the monumental temporary artwork by Christo and Jeanne-Claude existed for only two weeks in September of 1976. It was made of 240,000 square yards of heavy woven white nylon fabric, 90 miles of steel cable, 2,050 steel poles, 350,000 hooks, and 13,000 earth anchors. In 2008 American Art acquired the definitive record of this artwork and our exhibition, Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence opens this Friday.


    The museum commissioned a new film, The "Running Fence" Revisited, created for the exhibition by Wolfram Hissen from EstWest films. It was shown in the exhibition galleries, as was Running Fence (1978), a film by the legendary American filmmakers Albert and David Maysles with Charlotte Zwerin, and Running Fence with Commentary (2004, Plexifilm).


    The Smithsonian American Art Museum appreciates the support of these generous friends who contributed to the Running Fence exhibition and book: Edwin C. and Jeanne Anderson, George W. Cogan and Fannie Allen, David C. Copley, Louis Corrigan, Tania and Tom Evans, Shelby and Frederick Gans, Goldman Fund, Agnes Gund, Marin Convention and Visitors Bureau, Nion McEvoy, Joan and Alan Mirken, Steve Oliver, Bernard Osher Foundation, Anthony Otten and Janice Kim, Jeannie Schulz, Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, Nancy Stephens and Rick Rosenthal, Roselyne Swig, and Mike Wilkins and Sheila Duignan.