‘Ephemeral nature’: Aspen art show celebrates famous ‘Valley Curtain’

A photo of the Valley Curtain near Rifle taken by Leo Thomas “Theo” Prinster in 1972.
Submitted/Mike Prinster

Just as luck would have it, Leo Thomas “Theo” Prinster happened to have a Polaroid camera in his car. It was August 10, 1972. Prinster, the son of one of the founders of the Colorado City Market grocery chain, was returning to his home in Grand Junction after taking pictures of potential expansion properties in Steamboat Springs.

Aspen resident Mike Prinster, 63, is Leo’s son. He said his father was traveling south on Colorado State Highway 325 when a huge curtain appeared at Rifle Gap Reservoir, emitting its now-familiar distinct burnt-orange hue.

The home grocer from Colorado was immediately intrigued. He stopped, pulled out his Polaroid camera, and photographed what turned out to be one of Christo and Jean-Claude’s most epic creations of environmental art: the curtain of the valley.

“My dad had blown it up and then framed it,” Mike Prinster said of his father’s photo. “We had this in our living room for the longest time growing up, when we were kids.”

Aspen’s Haxton Gallery is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moment those 18,600 square meters of nylon fabric that made up the Orange Curtain first connected two ridges in the Grand Hogback Mountain Range and caught the attention of the likes of Leo Thomas Prinster.

The newest exhibition, Christo and Jean-Claude: Ephemeral Nature, officially opened on August 1 and is in collaboration with the Christo and Jean-Claude Foundation. It features previously unseen works from the personal collection of Christo and Jean-Claude.

The curated reveal consists of Christo’s drawings and collages representing the duo’s most iconic projects: Central Park’s “Gates,” Miami’s “Surrounding Islands,” and Rifle, Colorado’s “Valley Curtain.”

The exhibition also features Christo’s repertoire of “Packaged Objects,” such as a bouquet of flowers he once wrapped for Jean-Claude.

The Hexton Gallery represents the estate of Christo and Jean-Claude, and as a result “is able to choose from Christo’s favorite works that he kept to himself for each project,” said Bob Chase, the gallery’s founder. “The Valley Curtain project, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary and was organized in Rifle, was the foundation we built on. Then we focused on other really important ground projects that (Christo) did.”

Exactly 17 of Christo’s original works currently furnish the Haxton Gallery, an Aspen staple that originally began near the corner of 78th Street and Madison Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The smallest piece is 22-x-28 inches and the largest, 63-x-96 inches.

“They never saw the light of day,” Chase said. “Paintings done 50 years ago look like they came off (Christo’s) easel within 20 hours.”

The story behind renowned artists Christo Vladimirov Yavachev and Jean-Claude Dena de Gibbon coming to Rifle to create something Colorado natives like the Prinsters will cherish forever is as historic as it comes.

Christo was born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria on June 13, 1935. Jean-Claude was also born on June 13, 1935, but in Casablanca, French Morocco. Christo successfully escaped from under the Iron Curtain and in 1958 met Jean-Claude in Paris.

Amidst their rise to international fame and decades-long dedication to harnessing natural conditions and man-made infrastructure to create massive works of environmental art, a prominent local Carbondale art collector is what ignited Christo’s interest in Colorado.

Christo already had many patrons in Colorado, Chase said. One of them turned out to be John G. Powers. (Carbondale’s Powers Art Center is dedicated in his honor.)

Once Powers took Christo to Aspen and from there Christo was in love.

“Christo fell in love with it and went by a few times,” Chase said.

Christo had originally envisioned the Valley Curtain for Aspen. But the project, which eventually required 99 construction workers and helpers to get off the ground, seemed rational after Christo came across Rifle Gap.

“When he saw Rifle Gap, he saw not only the proximity to the freeway, but bathrooms and parking at the golf course that was nearby,” Chase said.

When Mike Prinster read about Hexton’s upcoming exhibition of Christo and Jean-Claude, he was inspired to do something. He kept this same Polaroid that his father, who died in 2012, took of the valley curtain before a violent storm wiped out the curtain in its 28th hour of existence.

Last Thursday, Mike brought it to the exhibition. As he looked at all the architectural drawings that adorned the walls of the exhibit, Chase admired and scanned the Polaroid, which, like the exhibit itself, had never before been seen by the general public.

“He was proud of that picture,” Mike Prinster said of his father. “That’s why I was excited to see the exhibit — just to re-enact this whole thing that happened, it was pretty cool.”

“Above the River” (Arkansas River Project, Colorado State), 2012; pencil, charcoal, pastel, wax pastel, enamel paint, topographical aerial photograph and fabric sample.
Exhibition “Christo and Jean-Claude: Ephemeral Nature”.
Exhibition “Christo and Jean-Claude: Ephemeral Nature”.

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