Many critics and viewers of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 2005 project, The Gates, found themselves wondering “what’s the big deal?” The piece consisted of thousands of rectangular sections of orange vinyl, each hung between two matching posts and arranged in a line stretching across Central Park. Christo and Jeanne-Claude sought to temporarily unite New Yorkers in a moment of aesthetic contemplation, admiration for man’s ability to alter his surroundings, and enjoyment of being outdoors. Instead, the work left many viewers cold. Critics called it an eyesore and parkgoers complained that the posts posed a danger to cyclists.
While one might be tempted to attribute the project’s failure to grandiose ambition, the success of Running Fence, an older Christo Jeanne-Claude collaboration, shows us that The Gates was not nearly ambitious enough. An exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering Running Fence“ revisits this extraordinary work. In 1976, the artists completed the construction of a 24.5 mile-long ‘fence’ that stretched across Northern California’s gentle hills before disappearing into the ocean. The fence consisted of an endless ribbon of white nylon secured by intermittent steel posts. In the wind, it swelled gently, like an engorged sail or white sheets hung up on a clothes line. Running Fence‘s visual success did not lie in the structure itself, but in its interaction with the monotonously beautiful surrounding landscape. A gallery of photographs in the SAAM exhibit shows us that the piece looked different depending on the time of day and where one stood.
Ultimately, it is Running Fence‘s use of nature as an artistic tool that made it a great artwork, unlike The Gates which remained a mere curiosity. Running Fence forced viewers to contemplate man’s relationship to nature and our own smallness. The Gates, by contrast, altered a man-made park, merely adding another layer to an already artificial environment.
The appreciation that Running Fence received from its viewers also stood in marked contrast to the tepid response garnered by The Gates. As the exhibit explains, many of the ranchers whose property it bisected or barely skirted were in great admiration of its beauty and poetry. One woman even made a blouse out of the fence’s white nylon material after the piece was taken down. When local bureaucrats attempted to prevent the completion of Running Fence, claiming among other things that it was an environmental hazard, local residents’ supportive testimony at hearings helped the artists to overcome these objections.
Running Fence was removed 14 days after it was erected. Its temporary nature was an important part of the artists concept. While the ephemeral structure no longer stands, the piece and its interaction with the land and the surrounding communities was well-documented. The exhibit presents photographs, architectural drawings and three-demensional models from the project, giving viewers an opportunity to explore this feat of artistic ingenuity. The exhibit will be on view through September 26th at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.