Imagine driving down the highway in August 1972 and seeing 4.5 acres of fabric strung across the valley from peak to peak. The orange material created a contrast between the blue sky above and the landscape below and was a strange sight for drivers.
That was the scene set 50 years ago by the “Valley Curtain” (1970-1972) on Highway 325 north of Rifle, Colorado, but not for long. The wind eventually caused the art installation to be blown off the Grand Hogback Mountain Range. The venture is one of the first large-scale projects realized by the late husband and wife artistic team Christo and Jean-Claude. The duo mesmerized a generation and beyond with their larger-than-life works of art around the world. Their legacy will be the subject of the Summervail Art Workshop Legacy Project and Vail Symposium event on Thursday at 6pm at Vail Mountain School.
“In 1971 the plan was to raise the fabric up to the cable to span the width of the valley, but as soon as they started to lift the fabric up, the wind caught it and started pushing it around. Some of the fabric went into the river and got wet, so it got heavy and was blown into the rocks, which then cut the fabric,” explained Dan Theleen, local artist and owner of Karats Jewelers in Vail Village.
Some members of the Summervail Art Workshop went on a field trip to check out the installation that first year, but Telleen went the following year to see the next curtain-raiser attempt.
“I passed because I thought it was kind of a crazy, wacky idea that wasn’t my definition of art at the time. But as it turned out, it changed my mind and my whole attitude towards what I thought art could be. It highlighted more of the thought behind the art,” Theleen said.
For the second attempt in 1972, Christo and Jean-Claude hired a new contractor and decided to have the fabric suspended and then dropped to the bottom. They were unrolling the cloth and it got stuck, causing another day’s delay. Many of the workers who had signed up to help had to return to work, school or other commitments, so Thelin and about a dozen students from the Summervail Art Workshop stayed to help the next day.
“Pulling it didn’t work, but then the wind came up and caught it and it had such a force that it tore the curtain and it roared down, which is what was supposed to happen,” Theleen said.
But the wind was not a friend for long – 28 hours later, gale force winds of up to 60mph forced the removal of the art installation.
Those 28 hours and the 28 months leading up to it left a ripple effect not only in Telleen’s mind, but also in the Rifle community and the government officials, construction workers, highway department employees, aides and students who were a part of him.
“The impact is not only on the people, but also on the place where it was, because art installations are so site-specific and become part of the history of the place. It becomes part of the cultural landscape for another generation or two and grows,” said Jonathan Henry, Jean-Claude’s nephew, who was involved in Christo and Jean-Claude’s day-to-day work and now runs the couple’s studio and home in New York and directs the Foundation Christo and Jean-Claude. Jean-Claude died in 2009 and Christo in 2020.
Other notable locations where Christo and Jean-Claude have completed large-scale projects around the world include:
“Wall of Oil Barrels – The Iron Curtain” Paris, 1961-62
“Running Fence,” Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76
“Surrounded Islands,” Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83.
“The Packed Reichstag”, Berlin, 1971-95
“The Arc de Triomphe packed”, Paris, 1961-2021
One project that never came to fruition was called Over the River. In 1992, Christo and Jean-Claude studied 96 rivers in the western United States between New Mexico and Idaho and narrowed them down to six rivers and chose a section of the Arkansas River in Colorado in 1996.
“Despite the provision of a full environmental impact statement and permits granted by the federal government and the Colorado Department of Parks and Recreation in 2011, there have been lawsuits and challenges. Christo ended up canceling the project in 2017,” Henery said.
“It continues to live on in the hearts of the team as we worked on it for decades and really got to know the people involved and loved Colorado and the opportunity to do a project here since I was a little kid and Vladimir wasn’t even born yet.” said Henry about the age he was when the “Valley Curtain” was installed.
Vladimir Yavachev is another nephew who has worked alongside Christo since the age of 15 and helps bring his uncle’s work to life. After the deaths of Christo and Jean-Claude, he constructed Christo and Jean-Claude’s unfinished work, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Henry, Yavachev and Thelin will be part of an international panel on Thursday evening. They will be joined by David Yust, a retired Colorado State University professor and world-renowned artist who was a friend and colleague of Christo and Jean-Claude, and Wolfgang Waltz, who was an assistant photographer on the Valley Curtain project in 1971. and was the lead photographer for Christo and Jean-Claude’s projects. Volz will be calling from Stockholm, Sweden.
The event will be moderated by James Baker, an artist, writer and former director of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village near Aspen. He met Christo and Jean-Claude through connections in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“As an art educator, their process of creating works on such a large scale was fascinating. But their planning was just as impressive. The negotiations, learning what the community needs, the whole process, which sometimes took decades, and moving on when it didn’t work, that part fascinates me,” Baker said.
Learn how the “Valley Curtain” has had a ripple effect on the arts in the Vale Valley and see what Henery and Yavachev plan to do to fulfill more of Christo and Jean-Claude’s legacy with projects like “The Mastaba” in the United Arab Emirates . For tickets and more information about the event, visit VailSymposium.org. To learn more about the Summervail Art Workshop Legacy Project, go to SVAW.org.