Big-Time Fabric


Phillips Details Artist Team’s Mammoth, Lengthy Endeavor

In the making since 1992, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s next installation will be on display for only two weeks in 2012, at the earliest. But the memory of the artistic feat will certainly endure.

An exhibit now on view at the Phillips Collection chronicles the husband-and-wife team’s planning process for “Over the River,” a mammoth canopy of silvery fabric that will be placed over the Arkansas River in Colorado.

Using about 200 items — including preparatory collages, technical diagrams, maps, photographs and fabric panels with the hardware that will anchor them — “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Over the River, a Work in Progress” follows the research and planning conducted by the two artists, who are known for using fabric against urban and rural backdrops to create monumental works of art that blend with the environment.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude were both born on June 13, 1935 — he in Bulgaria and she in Morocco. They met in Paris in 1958 and began their professional partnership in 1961. Since then, they have created several grand projects throughout the world, the most recent one being “The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005,” in which enormous saffron ribbons meandered through Central Park.

For “Over the River,” Christo and Jeanne-Claude plan to use about 1,000 steel cables to horizontally suspend 5.9 miles of silvery, luminous, custom-made fabric panels stretching above a 40-mile section of the river — following the course of the water along this popular rafting spot in the United States.

“The installation will consist of eight distinct sections varying from 0.3 to 2.5 miles in length,” according to a Phillips Collection press release. “These waves of panels will be interrupted by bridges, rocks and trees, leaving a total of 34.1 miles of the river and natural landscape untouched.”

The Phillips exhibit itself seems to ebb and flow. Arranged chronologically, there are periods of inactivity while the artists worked on other projects. Christo’s drawings and collages move visitors along much like a current; their billowy blues giving onlookers the impression that they’re sailing through the winding rooms. There are photographs of the artists meeting with government officials and townspeople as well as samples of the materials they will use, including a fabric panel and steel anchor.

The artists actually designed the museum display (it’s their voices on the audio guide). “They were wonderful to work with,” said Renée Maurer, curatorial coordinator for the show. “Christo actually drew out his installation intent for us, so that’s wonderful archival material that really represents our working with the artists.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude started thinking about “Over the River” in 1985 while they were working on “The Pont-Neuf Wrapped” in Paris, a 10-year endeavor.

“They were on a barge, and their workers were lifting fabric to go around one of the barrels of the bridge, and the artists basically saw a fabric panel over a body of water and light, and they kind of just had a moment,” Maurer explained.

In 1992, the artists began their research, traveling 14,000 miles and considering 89 rivers in seven states. In 1996, they chose a stretch of the Arkansas River running between Salida and Canon City in Colorado because of the flow of the water (from west to east) and the combination of flat water and rapids. In addition, the river is flanked by a railroad and highway and attracts some 300,000 visitors annually, which gives the project an added visual dimension.

“This project is so different because you access it in two ways: one on the river, on a raft or canoe, and thereby you’re below the fabric panel, or by car on U.S. 50, where you’re above the panel,” Maurer said. “You’ll have two very separate experiences because the fabric that they chose is translucent from beneath so you’ll see the shadows of the clouds and the sky, and then from above it’s a pulverized aluminum so it will really reflect the light of the day.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude have had to go through an extensive approval process to even make “Over the River” happen. They’re working with nearby communities, local governments, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Department of Transportation to secure permits for the whopping million project, which they pay for themselves. Currently, they’re looking for contractors to manage the first Environmental Impact Statement the artists will create for the project.

“They’re very sensitive to what they’re doing to the landscape,” Maurer said. “For everything they take away in terms of soil, they will package it and label it and return it. After the project comes to a close, they recycle all of their materials.”

“Over the River” will be shown for two weeks between mid-July and mid-August, in 2012 at the earliest. So why so much work for something that will be up for a fortnight?

“The artists are very interested in the concept of time and how we value time and how it’s limited,” Maurer said. “Everything about time is limited — you know, youth is fleeting, we always have these kind of ‘remember when’ moments — and to really incorporate time in a work of art is something that they can kind of own. What it does is it makes you stop for art, it makes you take that moment out of your busy schedule and think, ‘Well, this is only here for 14 days and this sounds like an opportunity that will never come again,’ and that’s really true.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Over the River, a Work in Progress through Jan. 25 at the Phillips Collection 1600 21st St., NW For more information, please call (202) 387-2151 or visit


About the Author

Stephanie M. Kanowitz is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.