Christo and Jeanne-Claude became famous for their grand installations that use thousands of yards of fabric to temporarily alter a landscape, such as surrounding the islands in Miami's Biscayne Bay, shrouding Berlin's Reichstag and planting festive panels through New York's Central Park.
Alas, we do not have one of those glorious interventions in "XTO + J-C: Christo and Jeanne-Claude Featuring Works From the Bequest of David C. Copley" at the Tampa Museum of Art. It's a collection of drawings, prints, collages and a few sculptures, plus photographs of the installations, so I was primed for a close-but-no-cigar reaction. Just goes to show that the cliche about assumptions is often true.
I love this exhibition. It gives us a comprehensive look at the artists' evolution, demonstrates Christo's talent as a draftsman and illuminates the tenacity required to realize their big visions. The latter is provided not by Christo and Jeanne-Claude but by two documentaries from Albert and David Maysles. Each runs about an hour, and I only had time for one chronicling Running Fence, but it's as compelling a drama as a Hollywood epic. I viewed it at the end of my visit; I suggest you begin yours there and I'll explain the reason further down.
Because I know Christo, 80, only as the master of the epically ephemeral, I enjoyed seeing how that began and evolved. In his earliest years in eastern Europe, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff was a gifted art student who, as he matured, painted realistic landscapes and made a living as a portrait painter. Moving to Paris in the late 1950s seemed to liberate him and he began wrapping found objects in plastic and twine, perhaps as an existential metaphor for the suppression he had experienced in eastern Europe. He also collected old oil drums that he would arrange sculpturally. One installation, created with his new wife Jeanne-Claude, caused a minor sensation. For Rideau de Fer (Iron Curtain), they stacked the barrels to block a street as a protest of the Berlin Wall.
A few examples of his wrapped sculptures — a portrait of Jeanne-Claude, an art book, for example — are on view along with drawings of others, such as a car and motorcycle. They are the early iterations of his fascination with transformation wrought by concealment. The Store Fronts series continued his evolution. They are fake entries covered with paper so we can't see inside, subverting the point of a storefront. One of them is in the show, along with smaller drawings and conceptual renderings.
Another gallery is taken up by studies for the couples' monumental projects, which they began working on in the early 1970s, then a final gallery of photographs after their completion. They continue Christo's use of materials, now fabric instead of plastic, to change something, but on a greatly enlarged scale. He becomes a landscape artist, as he was in his youth, but these landscapes don't replicate, they transform. We continue to see the familiar but in a new way. Always, the transformation is temporary so that when it is gone, we continue to look at a place differently in our memory.
As remarkable as the art itself is the aesthetic. Christo and Jeanne-Claude (before her death in 2009) have financed each installation (including paid experts and all the workers) themselves — and they cost millions, in one case $100 million — through the sale of his drawings and studies. They accept no sponsorships. So the works belong only to them, and they always remove them after about two weeks with no harm done to the environment. Pay special attention to the dates of each work. For example, The Gates: 1979-2005. The couple worked to get permission for the Central Park project for more than 20 years, finally winning approval under Michael Bloomberg's administration. Actualizing it only took about a year.
You'll get a sense of their efforts and appreciate the exhibition all the more because you have first seen one of the documentaries, in my case, Running Fence.
Running Fence was conceived in 1972 as a 25-mile "fence" of heavy white nylon fabric meandering through the hills of Sonoma and Marin counties in California, then disappearing into the Pacific Ocean. Most of the land was owned by 59 ranching families who had to be convinced that their cattle and sheep herds wouldn't be disrupted. And, more, had to put aside their suspicion and skepticism of a couple who spoke spotty English with European accents and had yet to become art superstars. An early scene shows them visiting several families and being turned away, with Jeanne-Claude bursting into tears and Christo berating her for becoming too emotional. With the help of locals, the majority are won over, and we see contracts being signed by hands with fingernails ranging from dirt-encrusted to manicured.
The real battle begins when environmentalists and others object to the project, and a series of hearings illustrates the high feelings for and against. In one scene, a rugged rancher is dismayed that he feels he doesn't own his land if he can't do what he wants with it. In another, a cafe owner chats with customers as she makes hamburger patties.
"If it stays up one day, he'll be happy," she tells them. "Can you imagine, one day?"
After four years of wrangling that includes production of a 450-page environmental impact study, workers begin planting more than 2,000 steel poles, strung with about 88 miles of steel cables, hung with about 240,000 yards of fabric. Guy wires and 13,000 anchors are used to keep the poles in place rather than concrete.
And then looms the spectre of an injunction to halt work because officials claim Christo doesn't have permits to submerge panels in the ocean. Jeanne-Claude, managing operations from a temporary office, places a frantic call to her husband telling him he has two hours before the police show up and shut down Running Fence. He and construction managers rally workers who are rushed to the site to get the installation done, coping with high winds that cause disruptions.
At this point, you're biting your nails.
A judge rules in Christo's favor, saying, "He's going to take it down anyway."
The last part of the film is a moving affirmation of the vision as we see long shots of Running Fence curving gracefully through the hills, its white color changing with the sun's location as a border collie herds sheep through a planned opening.
No photograph and no drawings, however lovely, convey the scope of this installation; you have to see it in moving-picture form. The film is also a vehicle delivering the grueling process involved in creating something beautiful that lasts only a few weeks, if that.