Smithsonian takes a close look at Christo's seminal 'Running Fence'

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; C01

For 50 years, Christo and Jeanne-Claude created grand art projects that stretched the imagination, stirred up all sorts of controversy and then quickly disappeared.

They wrapped Berlin's Reichstag in white fabric and aluminum, and they strung saffron panels along Central Park in New York.

But long before these memorable works, the two artists formed a billowing 24.5-mile fence of heavy white nylon along the Northern California coast. The captivating story of how "Running Fence" was made in 1976, following four years of planning and contentious negotiations with local governments, is now part of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

"This was the seminal project in their careers and the most inspiring of all their projects," said Elizabeth Broun, the museum director.

The show, which opens Friday, is based on the archives the artists created for the project and contains many of the 400 "Running Fence" items the museum purchased in 2008.

Christo, now 74, dressed in bluejeans, a multi-pocket explorers vest and black loafers, walked through the show Tuesday morning, saying how pleased he was that the Smithsonian showed such interest in this part of his artistic legacy. "This is the first museum in the world to have a complete collection of one work," he said, inspecting the walls of photographs and drawings. His wife and artistic partner, Jeanne-Claude, died suddenly in November, and the catalogue and a new film by Wolfram Hissen are dedicated to her.

The collection, which will be displayed through Sept. 26, consists of 46 preparatory drawings by Christo and allows the museum to explore the work of a living artist in great detail, from concept to execution. The drawings, some of which are eight feet wide, have the landscape nuances of Georgia O'Keeffe. It is Christo's practice to sell additional drawings to raise money for each privately funded project. In one gallery is a 58-foot-long scale model of the "Fence," with tiny paper flags representing the nylon cloth set along the highway, through a small town and eventually to the ocean.

Not only Christo's fans but documentary and photography audiences will gain an understanding of the travails of making art. At times the photographs, more than 240, taken by Wolfgang Volz, Gianfranco Gorgoni and Harry Shunk, dominate the story. They start with the town meetings and the family of ranchers that leased the property, and show the finished fence at all times of day and weather.

For those who never saw "Running Fence," images of the ambitious work are projected onto a 22-foot-wide wall that successfully portrays the enormous size and simple cleverness of the artists' vision. If constructed in Washington today, the fence would go from the museum's location at Gallery Place to Dulles International Airport.

"We needed to have a set of roads, and this area had 14 small county roads. We needed to have a small town," said Christo, explaining the chosen geography of Marin and Sonoma counties. He loved the mix of ocean, farmhouses, fences, roads, hills and the rugged people. The ranchers were puzzled by a fence that didn't hold in the cattle, one man told the filmmakers.

"The heroes are the 59 ranchers. They recognized a kindred spirit," said Broun, referring to the immigrant status of the farmers and artists. "They turned the tide with the government agencies."

The objections came from several areas. "Eighteen public hearings," Christo listed, still amazed at the clamor. One question, Christo recalled, smiling and shaking his flyaway white hair, was who were these artists, who had heavy accents and were paying for the installation themselves. "Was I a Soviet spy? Was I a front-runner for real estate developers? There was a fear that the project would attract many foreigners and they would start building houses," he said.

Besides the hurdles to get access to the land, the project presented many engineering challenges that are faithfully documented. The team consisted of 360 installation workers, including the farmers, who worked with 90 miles of steel cable, 13,000 anchors and more than 2,000 steel poles and 240,000 square yards of fabric. It was the first large artwork that required an environmental impact statement.

"The fabric had a marvelous recycling story," Christo said. He said a manufacturer was testing material for car air bags and the samples were too wide. So Christo inherited them and after the project gave them to the ranchers to use on their properties.

It opened Sept. 10, 1976, and workers started to dismantle it 14 days later.

Along the way, Christo and Jeanne-Claude became celebrities.

Documentation was necessary, he said. "We are doing temporary works of art, so we are very conscious of keeping a record. It creates an energy for our future projects," he said. The archives for "Fence" traveled for five years and were in storage from 1982 until now.

Broun hadn't seen "Fence" in person but said she knew the historic value of the work. "In 1998, we started talking to them. But then we were in the middle of a renovation and couldn't do it. Then after we reopened in 2006, they came to see the renovation, were very pleased and said let's reopen the conversation. And they lowered the price," Broun said. She raised funds from 19 donors and said the largest gift was $50,000.

"We wanted to keep the impact alive," she said. "We wanted to guard it and present it for future generations. They need to know how gorgeous it was."

The 'Running Fence' collection

will be on display from Friday to Sept. 26 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. More information can be found at

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