ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Thursday is Lunchtime in the Sonoma County Museum’s New Outdoor Sculpture Garden!

Ned Kahn's Vapor Fountain (steel, aluminum, 2011) happily bubbled away at last Sunday's inauguration of the Sonoma County Museum's new outdoor sculpture garden. Kahn is an internationally recognized artist who frequently works with water and natural elements. The fountain marks the entrance to the garden which also contains the works of 6 other Northern CA Artists. Photo: Geneva Anderson

The Sonoma County Museum’s new Outdoor Sculpture Garden, its latest in a series of planned upgrades, was dedicated last Sunday at festive reception for donors and museum members.   The community is invited to embrace the new space by having lunch there on Thursdays through September when entrance to the garden will be free.  The new garden is located in a previously empty third of an acre lot at A & 7th Streets in Santa Rosa, next to the Sonoma County Museum (SCM) and features 10 works by 7 North Bay artists– Carroll Barnes, Roger Berry, Edwin Hamilton, Bruce Johnson, Ned Kahn, Pat Lenz and Hugh Livingston.  

The project cost roughly $200,000 and the garden was designed by San Rafael architect Fred Warneke.  The grounds themselves were landscaped by JLP Landscape Contracting of Santa Rosa with native trees, shrubs and grasses supplementing the magnolia and redwood trees already there and a back iron fence with a trellis gate entry surrounds the area.  The artworks are on long-term loan to the museum from the artists with the exception of the sound installation by Hugh Livingston, which was commissioned, and Cazadero sculptor Bruce Johnson’s enormous wood and copper “Sequoia” (2,000), which the museum owns.  “Sequoia,” is a split open old growth sequoia tree whose interior was milled out with a chain saw and lined in copper and is meant to be walked through.   The 16 foot tall piece required an upgrade in its retrofitting before it could be relocated from its east site on the museum to the new garden locale on the west.  (Click here to see a SCM photo album devoted to “Sequoia’s” move.)  

At 16 feet tall, Cazadero sculptor Bruce Johnson's "Sequoia" is a focal point of the Sonoma County Museum's new outdoor sculpture garden. The hollowed-out old growth sequoia was relocated from the east side of the museum to the new garden on the west side with much fanfare. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Sunday’s celebration was also a fundraiser to support the museum’s Collection Initiative, a long range program developed by Diane Evans, the museum’s executive director and Eric Stanley, its history curator, to manage the museum’s collection which encompasses some 20,000 artworks and historical pieces.  Currently, the vast majority of this collection is in storage due to lack of space.  

In April, 2011, the museum was awarded a $300, 000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) five-year Challenge Grant, designated for its Collection Initiative.  This was quite an honor as just two of these challenge grants were awarded in all of California for 2010.   According to Evans, the grant requires SCM to raise $900,000 over the next five years in matching funds.  The grant and matching dollars together will total $1.2 million, which will be designated toward an endowment for the support of staffing to care for and manage the museum’s extensive collections, as well as funds to ensure safe long-term collections storage.  The museum must raise $60,000 by July 31, 2011 to meet the grant’s first stage.  Evans reported Sunday that the museum had raised about $20,000 so far.  All of the funding raised must be allocated to the Collections Initiative and cannot support other museum programs or campaigns.

Meanwhile, the museum’s expansion plans are on track for occupying space in the former AT&T building after its remodel is completed next year.  Contemporary artworks will be displayed in that new space and the present locale, the historic old post office building, will then be devoted to the museum’s vast collection of historical objects.  Highlights of the SCM’s collection include the Song Wong Bourbeau Collection of some 200 photographs and artifacts which represents the rich history and culture of Santa Rosa’s Chinatown, and the Tom Golden Collection of artworks by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Hugh Livingston's subtle 16 Channel Sound Installation is a work in progress at the Sonoma County Museum's new outdoor sculpture garden. Livingston placed 16 (round green) units around the garden that emit gurgling water sounds recorded at the Russian River over the past year. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Those visiting the new outdoor sculpture garden this month will have the chance to see Hugh Livingston tweaking his 16 channel sound installation which uses sound bites captured from the Russian River.   The piece has the most conceptual angle among the ten and also corners the market for humor–  it looks and sounds like city water infrastructure on steroids.   In fact, many guests at Sunday’s reception didn’t even realize it was art, which is fine with Livingston who likes making a “subtle point”.   Livingston explained that it was “too noisy” with all the landscaping and irrigation set-up going on to actually hear what he was doing, so he will be adjusting his 16 gurgling green ports over the coming weeks.

Lunchtime: Every Thursday, from June 30 through September 29, 2011, from 11:30am – 1:30pm, Ultracrepes mobile family-operated food truck will be on site selling gourmet savory and dessert crepes made with natural ingredients for $5 to $7, along with a variety of refreshments.  Visitors are encouraged to sit and eat and linger in the garden, taking in the works which have been loaned to the museum on a long-term basis by the artists. 

Upcoming activities in the garden:
June 30: Claire Gustavson Art Class
July 7: Jessica Jarvis and partner (Jazz duo/acoustic jazz guitar and singer)
July 14: Katie Godec (singer)
July 21: Claire Gustavson Art Class

Details: Admission is FREE for Lunchtime in the Garden; regular museum admission applies to visit current exhibitions.  The Sonoma County Museum is located at 425 7th Street, Santa Rosa, CA 95401.  Museum Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 11am-5pm.  Information: 707.579 .1500

Current Exhibitions:  Gertrud Parker: An Artist and Collector and Pat Lenz: Nobody’s Poodle, both through September 11, 2011.

Directions: Sonoma County Museum is just steps away from Downtown Santa Rosa and Historic Railroad Square.  From Highway 101 Heading North, take the 3rd St/Downtown Exit from Hwy 101, turn right at 3rd Street and then left at B Street. Travel 3/4 mile and turn left at 7th Street.  The museum is on your right.

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June 29, 2011 Posted by | Art, Sonoma County Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wolfram Hissen’s “The Running Fence Revisited” screens this weekend at the Sonoma International Film Festival—an emotional portrait of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the fence, and the community that fought over it

In the documentary “The Running Fence Revisited,” Jeanne and Christo reconnect with the community that supported their controversial fence thirty-four years ago. Filming at the Benedetti’s Sonoma County turkey farm: Christo’s nephew Vladimir Javacheff, Best Boy Vincent O’Connell, filmmaker Wolfram Hissen, turkey farmer Walter Benedetti, Jeanne-Claude, and Christo. Photo by Erin Van Rheenen

More than any other filmmaker working with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wolfram Hissen has stayed the test of time.  The German filmmaker made his first film about their work 26 years ago and, six films later, he is still going strong.  The Running Fence Revisited, screening on Saturday and Sunday this weekend at the 14th Sonoma International Film Festival celebrates Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s iconic Running Fence, a 24 mile long white fabric fence that ran through Marin and Sonoma Counties for two weeks in 1976 and profoundly changed the way we all think about art.   The documentary contains precious footage of Jeanne-Claude’s last visit to Northern California in the fall of 2009, and provides a riveting snapshot of the intense and highly creative style of communicating the artistic couple employed as well as touching interviews with the farmers and community members who supported and opposed the controversial project.  Christo insists that the “Fence” itself is not the work of art but rather how the fence interacted with the landscape made the art.  It was the trailing nylon ribbon “suddenly underlined and energized by the topography” and how “the people themselves who got into the discussion, for or against” and the immense paper trail—that were all together “Running Fence.”  And this is the amorphous subject that Hissen tackles so admirably in his film that was commissioned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum for their exhibition “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence” (April 2- September 26, 2010).    

The 47 minute film was shot on location in Valley Ford, Bloomfield and along the fence line began near the Old Redwood Highway close to Penngrove, crossed 18 roads and transected 59 ranches as it stretched across the golden hills of West Sonoma County and dropped into the Pacific just over the Marin County line.  It features many quiet scenes of Christo and Jeanne-Claude just walking and talking arm in arm, habituating the viewer to the slow dreamy rhythm of being in nature.  There is no added sound, save from original sound of the fence itself being whipped about by the wind and music from the footage that was made in 1976-77 in the pickup of William Corda and Joe Pozzi.  

Below is an interview Wolfram Hissen and I started in Washington D.C. last April at the film’s global premiere at the Smithsonian and finished at its West Coast premiere last June at the Union Hotel, Occidental, and at the Charles M. Schultz Museum, in Santa Rosa.  Typical of the today’s international filmmaker, Hissen is constantly on the move:  he maintains a home in France and in New York and is juggling several projects at once.  Once a big chunk of the funding seemed fairly certain, he assembled his crew quickly in the fall of 2009–Derek van Rheenen, Ph.D., assistant director, Erin van Rheenen, gopher and author of an eloquent brochure on the film, and best boy Vincent O’Connell.   He shot most of the film during the special Bloomfield celebration with Christo and Jeanne-Claude (September 2009) celebrating the fence at 33.  (see ARThound, September 13, 2009  “The Running Fence at 33…an extended Family Gathers Round Christo and Jeanne-Claude”  and September 3, 2009 “The Running Fence at 33..Christo and Jeanne Claude Visit Sonoma County.”   

The interview has been edited so that the time frames discussed are relative to 2011.

Geneva Anderson: How did you first get involved with Christo and what inspired you to do this film?

Wolfram Hissen:  Christo made a huge impression on me when I was young.  I am a German citizen, was born in Köln, but was raised in Portland, Oregon, and New York.  In the late 1960’s, our family returned to Heidelberg, Germany and I found that a very strange planet indeed.  My parents were originally from East Germany and so that was another layer.  We were travelling in both East and West Germany and, to me, everything seemed forbidden.  My brother and I were very American and missing everything.  I was about 8 years old and in Heidelberg, the America House had been wrapped by Christo in 1969 (America House Wrapped).  I never forgot that, that someone came to Germany who had the power and freedom to wrap a building and that really totally surprised me. 

Also, my family is very interested in film-making.  My grandfather was a co-inventor of the magnetic tape and always had cameras and recording stuff around.  From about the age of 10 on, I was always wondering what direction I would take.  In art school, I saw the Maysles brothers film “Running Fence” and I remembered the Heildeberg project.   The “Running Fence,” for me, was one of the most important artworks made in the second half on the century.  When I saw that film, I said, one day I am either going to make art like that or film like that.   So this is a magic moment.  It’s 30 odd years after I saw that film. I had decided to make films like that.  I found myself making a film about it and now I am showing it.

GA:  How many films have you done with Christo and Jeanne-Claude?

Wolfram Hissen:  We’ve been working together for about 25 years and this was our 6th film. The “Running Fence” project was relatively fast…it took them 4 years to get approval but with the “Wrapped Reichstag” or “Gates,” it took them over 20 years to achieve those projects.   They always had something to work on if one project was blocked.  We adapted that with our filmmaking too, and I’ve worked off and on since 2008 on the fence film.

My main films are: 1995, Project for the Würth Museum, Künzelsau, Germany. (The floors and stairways of the small private Würth Museum were wrapped and the windows were covered.)

1996, Christo und Jeanne-Claude, Dem Deutsche Volke, Verhüllter Reichstag 1971-95, (alternative title: To the German People: Wrapped Reichstag 1971-1995) , Wolfram and Jörg Daniel Hissen, Est-West, 98 minutes.

1997-98, Wrapped Trees, Foundation Beyler, Berower Park, Riehen, Switzerland, (The wrapping of 178 trees at the Bayerle Foundation in Switzerland.), Wolfram and Jörg Daniel Hissen, EstWest, 26 minutes.

2005 Christo and Jeanne-Claude, On the Way to Over The River, Wolfram and Jörg Daniel Hissen, EstWest, 34 minutes.

2008  Along US 50 “Over The River” in progress, Wolfram and Jörg Daniel Hissen, EstWest, 89 minutes.

2010  The Running Fence Revisited, EstWest 47 minutes.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California 1972-76 Segments 1, 2B, and 3A, September 10 – 20, 1976, ©Christo Photograph by Gianfranco Gorgoni

 GA: Did you see actually see “The Running Fence”?

Wolfram Hissen:  I did not see the fence.  I was raised in Oregon though and am very familiar with the West Coast.  My assistant director, Derek Van Rheenen, who I have been friends with since we were babies, is also from here.  He’s a professor at UC Berkeley and we’ve collaborated on several films.  I am also quite familiar with the mentality.  To me, being European, I kind of look at CA like an independent country, very different from the rest of the states.  You could say it’s like Belgium and France or Austria and Germany which are European but quite distinct.   Actually, there’s nothing like California.  

 GA:  How did the idea for the film about “The Running Fence” come about?

Wolfram Hissen: Since 1994, we’ve been filming for the “Over the River” project even though the project hasn’t happened yet.   About 4 years ago, Christo and Jeanne-Claude asked me to make a film out of that footage and I said I’d gave it a try.  It went well and that film was shown at the Phillips Collection here in Washington, D.C. for the “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Over the River, a Work in Progress” (October 11, 2008-January 25, 2009).  There were a couple of people there from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, including curator George Gurney, and he liked it.   They invited me over to discuss making a film about the Running Fence.  I had already been to the region in 2005 or 2006 because of the next project that Christo planned, for the span of fabric over the Arkansas River in Colorado.  I came to see where they did the Running Fence because that project is very much like putting the Running Fence horizontally over the river. 

When I walked into that little post office in Valley Ford, I was so surprised…this was a beautiful post office… and like a shrine to Christo and the fence.  I told myself, one day I am going to a film and this is going to be a part of it.

GA: What exactly is it about Christo and Jeanne-Claude that keeps you making films about them?

Wolfram Hissen:  There’s such a great spirit in them and aspects that I myself share with them—being independent and valuing freedom, liberty.  Also, I believe strongly, like them, that you do not always need to do things that make sense.  If all our lives were about things that made sense, then what would we have.  I also like the temporal aspect– these are ephemeral projects.  And then both of them are just incredible people.  I like being together with them…it’s been 25 years now.  Aside from my parents, there is no one I‘ve learned more from.  I respect them deeply.  They are a brilliant creative team and they work hard all the time, never satisfied and saying ‘it’s good enough.’  For them, every detail is debated over and over. 

The thing that also works very well with us is that Jeanne-Claude was of French origin and I am of German origin but I was raised in the U.S., but for most of my adult life, I’ve lived in France.  I do keep a place in Brooklyn but most of my life I’ve gone back and forth between those cultures.  I really enjoy and get people who have this diverse cultural background and who live this life nomadic life.  You don’t have to explain much—you get each other.   Christo and Jeanne-Claude are people who do not judge that fast, who have openness and experience. They got along with those American ranchers and they knew how to make themselves and their ideas understood.  In each language and each culture, you address this somewhat differently and they are great masters at that.  They had nothing to do with Japan but got along fine, same thing with Germany.  They fit.  That’s such an important part of their art—how to make people understand what you want and what you are planning. 

In the film, Leo Ielmorini says “They knew how to speak to a dumb farmer and to a supervisor.”   It’s not true that Christo and Jeanne–Claude thought they were dumb farmers…far from it.  No, they knew that were talking to someone with different experience and ways of getting things done and they knew how to reach him.  

 GA: Given that the Maysles brothers film “Running Fence” , from 1978,  has been so successful and important, did you want to do something different to distinguish yourself?  Was that a factor for you?

Wolfram Hissen:  No, not at all.  That is a beautiful film, certainly one of the best documentary films I have seen in my life and it influenced my own life.  I saw it when I was a teenager and I thought it was beautiful and something I’d like to do myself.  But with today’s filmmaking and situation, everything has changed, and it doesn’t really make sense to compare to them or to find things the two films have in common.  What we might have in common, Albert and I, (his brother David Maysles died in 1987) is that we are both psychologists and it’s helpful to be a psychologist when you are a filmmaker and to really enjoy people.  The people in CA are really wonderful, unique, and I must say, it’s fun to work with them.  Every day, when I went out– sometimes with the team—and spent time with the ranchers, I really enjoyed it.  I had nothing to worry about and I felt like I knew these people.

GA:  What was your goal for the film then, and how did Jeanne Claude’s death impact the editing?

Wolfram Hissen: When you make this kind of film, you speak to people in a very direct and private way.  On one level, it’s something fun but it’s also profound…this film has been speaking about actually pop art that happened in the 1970’s so we’re looking at a whole generation since then.  I wanted it to be emotional and beautiful.

This was tough project, not that I am complaining, but when Jeanne-Claude also died, the film really became a different project…it became more about her influence and at the same time, it had to remain about the fence and tell that story.  We were talking about things that were temporary and eternal with the overlay of her passing.  She herself expressed this concept very well in words in the film.  It was challenging but I found I had all the material I needed.

GA:  Speaking of material, it seems to me, like it could easily be 90 minutes or more.  How was the length determined and, within that constraint, how did you decide what to leave in and take out?

Wolfram Hissen:  Budget and how much time I could spend with it.  This film really went far with the budget it had.  Initially, the planning with the Smithsonian was to make a film that was 20-25 minutes.  When I did my first research trip to the area, I knew there was so much that I could easily do a 90 minute film.  When I showed the first cut in Washington, D.C., a couple of months before the exhibition opened, the film was 30 minutes long.   I felt there was so much missing, that I needed to tell more, to show more.    

As it stands, I spent twice as much time as I had planned and the film is twice as long and also in the beginning there was a different approach.  I was always a little afraid that something would happen and I didn’t want this film to become another story.  And then, when Jeanne-Claude passed away, that added again a dimension that we hadn’t thought about before.  For instance, the footage in the beginning of the film– those aerial views–they were taken on November 18, 2009, that’s the exact day that she died in New York.  These shots were really taken that day and they are beautiful and everyone agrees they are breathtaking.  I was informed the next day that she ha died but some thoughts ran through my mind about what it all meant.   

GA:  It’s a tender homage, showing her energy and passion.  In the film, you were dealing some people who were older.  Did you have any troubles from that perspective, with their memory and so forth?   They come off as having the wisdom of ages and being very coherent.

Wolfram Hissen:  Well, sometimes they would start to say something fascinating and I was like this is great, keep going …but they would forget what they were talking about and just stop.  But basically it went very well.   I was so fascinated by what they were saying, their intelligence about life.

GA:  You decided to forego adding sound.  How important is sound in this film? 

Wolfram Hissen:  Most of filmmaking is in aesthetic decision.  The main music in the film is actually the artwork of Christo and Jeanne-Claude and there is ambient sound.  This world is so loud we really wanted to invite people to look closely at that footage and listen to what the people have to say. 

In 1991, Derek (Van Rheenen) and I went to Bakersfield and also to Japan to film “The Umbrellas” project and we asked Christo how he chooses the exact spots where he put those umbrellas.  He said, ‘How do you write a symphony?’  The art itself is also musical, lyrical.  If you look at the fence, as Bill LeBaron says in the film, it was in the landscape, it was all movement, ripple.   We decided to focus on the original sound, so the music in the film is the original music from the footage that was made in 1976-77 in the pickup of William Corda and Joe Pozzi and that’s it.  

The Running Fence Revisited film crew: Best Boy Vincent O’Connell, filmmaker Wolfram Hissen, Best Boy and Gopher, Erin Van Rheenen and co-Director Derek Van Rheenen. Photo: Geneva Anderson

GA: What was it like to interview the sculptor Mary Fuller McChesney, who along with her husband, Robert McChesney, vehemently opposed the fence?  She seems entrenched in her attitude about Christo and Jeanne-Claude to this day.  

Wolfram Hissen:  That is ok.  I respect totally that people should be able to have their opinions.  I thought for the film it would be important to have the opposition interviewed.  I also interviewed Mr. Kortum, a Sonoma County Supervisor at the time, who is by now quite old.  And it was difficult to understand always what he was saying but he made his point.  I think from Mrs. McChesney you understand very well why they opposed the fence– because they did not want to be a part of this art– which is fine.  The other reason to be opposed was for the environment, and those claims came from Kortum.  We found out from certain ranchers, like Leo Ielmorini, that this wasn’t a big issue at all.  And time has shown that well too–nothing came of the claims that were made about Christo and Jeanne-Claude or the damage that the fence would cause.

GA:  You captured the common sense of the farmers very well, especially with Leo’s lines about birds not flying into the fence at night. 

Wolfram Hissen:  I especially loved his old-American language, which you don’t hear anymore.  He says Christo and Jeanne-Claude “were smarter than the average bear.”  That’s Yogi Bear.   What kids today know who that is?   Or, he says, “They’ve been around the horn once or twice,” which is a typical expression of immigrants 150 years ago, I mean before the Panama Canal, because you had to go around the horn, which was the southernmost point of South America.  I just love that.   

It is also part of American culture to create or to play with words, like the term “sue happy,” “everyone is sue happy.”   This came up when I was talking about the probably of getting these permissions from all the individual farmers today.  I had never heard that before and I really enjoyed just listening to the farmers talk.  And Roz, in that tiny post office, was wonderful.    

I wanted to make an emotional beautiful film, which to me is like a roller coaster that takes you with it.  In the beginning, it’s just beautiful and then you meet these people and they take you some place with them.   They are funny and you are laughing and forget the world and you just enjoy, taking it in, but then there’s this moment where they’re talking about getting older, aging, saying my father passed away, this person passed away, and that was so important to put in the film.  That’s what I mean by emotional beautiful because all emotions are there—a lot of people at the end of film are crying…and the last words of Jeanne Claude, those words about what they are doing and the temporary aspect of it, are chilling and beautiful.

GA:  What are you doing right now?

Wolfram Hissen:  I am making a film about the American landscape artist Stephen Hannock.  It’s a film about modern landscape painting which is experiencing a revival and the musician Sting, who is a friend of Hannock and a big supporter of his work, is involved.  I’m also working on a series about the West Coast for a German-French art station with my brother.  We also just completed a film on the eruption of Mt. St. Helens that was shown on Nova.   We always have different projects we are working on.  Our films usually take quite a while.  

The Running Fence Revisited, 2010, 47 minutes.  Team: Directors: Wolfram Hissen, Derek Van Rheenen, Best Boy: Vincent O’Connell, Erin Van Rheenen, Gopher: Erin Van Rheenen

 Screens at The 14th Annual Sonoma International Film Festival: Saturday, April 9, 2011,  6:00 p.m., Sonoma Valley Museum of Art and Sunday, April 10, 2011, 6:45 p.m., Woman’s Club)   Festival Details: www.sonomafilmfest.org

April 7, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Two fantastic Christo portraits you will NOT see at the Smithsonian Running Fence exhibition–these are right here in Petaluma and by Morrie Camhi

Christo and his Running Fence. Morrie Camhi, 1976, silver gelatin print

While ARThound is delighted to be attending the festivities surrounding the “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence” exhibition opening this Friday  in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, there is something to be said for local talent.  The late Petaluma photographer Morrie Camhi took two of the best portraits of young Christo ever and they are not at the Smithsonian; they are currently on display in Petaluma at the Petaluma Art Center through April 25.   The show in Washington includes the camera-work of Gianfanco Gorgoni, Italian, who handled portraits and Wolfgang Volz, German, who did the landscape shots of the fence.  Were Camhi’s two portraits in the show, they would likely be referred to as the little jewels that best captured Christo the man in this gargantuan project. 

“Portrait as Metaphor” highlights the  work of Morrie Camhi and includes images from his series “Faces and Facets:  The Jews of

Christo and his Running Fence, Morrie Camhi, September 1976, silver gelatin print

Greece,” “Espejo: Reflections of the Mexican American,” and “The Prison Experience.”

What is immediately evident in these images is Camhi’s use of light and the definitive expressions he captured in all his subjects.  The Christo portraits are remarkable though–evoking the determination, defiance and grit that came to define Christo as well as his own sense of wonderment with the fence.   We can almost feel the cool ocean wind blowing as Christo stands in a field with suitcase in hand before the lyrical creation that took him years to realize.   The suitcase says it all–traveler, pied piper, magician, bureaucrat–work accomplished, Christo came and went leaving us to sort out hwat it all meant.  Camhi has pulled so much from the negative, producing a dark broody silouette like image masterfully printed in  silver gelatin.    

Thank you, Christo and Jeanne Claude for fighting for this project with your heart and soul and thank you Morrie for these  images which ignite our memories of  this artistic duo who showed us all how to dream big.

March 29, 2010 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Artist Jeanne-Claude has died suddenly. She lived a full life. May she now wrap Heaven in shimmering fabrics

Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebone, wife and artistic partner of Christo, died suddenly Wednesday, November 19, 2009, in Manhattan, where she had lived with Christo since 1964.  A statement on the couple’s website said that she died of a ruptured brain aneurysm.  She was 74.  I met her several times throughout the years and found her both enchanting and frank–hallmarks of a strong woman.  The last time we met was in mid-September at “The Running Fence at 33” gathering,  when she and Christo spent the afternoon in Valley Ford reminiscing with old friends about “The Running Fence,” which graced our California coastline 33 years earlier.  German filmmaker Wolfram Hissen was there shooting a documentary film about the fence and George Gurney, deputy chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum was also there preparing for “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76, A Documentation Exhibition,” which opens April 2, 2010, in Washington and will travel nationally.  

Looking back at that lovely event, I am thankful that I had the chance to greet her again and that she was able to visit with friends who were part of her formative years.  She said several times that afternoon that she felt as if she had “come home.”   When I wrote about the gathering, my headline pointed to what was coming “..we’re all older but the fence lives on..”  Many of the farmers who had given the young couple permission to put the fence up on their property had passed away and most of the people at the gathering were well over 50.  Talking about the fence took us all back to our youthful days.   Jeanne-Claude was happy and spoke excitedly about their new project “Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado.”    which had suffered the standard bureaucratic and funding snafus that accompany these immense temporal  projects.  Her red-orange hair—reminiscent of the cotton candy hair of a clown– seemed brighter than it had ever been before.  She signed autographs and poured over pictures and maps.  She spoke graciously with strangers and lovingly with dear friends.  And, like a little girl, she snuck a cigarette with an old friend and told us not to photograph her smoking because she didn’t want to be seen promoting something that was unhealthy.     

Jeanne-Claude and Christo in younger days (image by Fred Modarrah)

I have always been fascinated by artist couples who manage to pull it off—a loving marriage, a creative partnership and fame.  Their collaborative approach, which I had heard them describe a few times in the 1990’s, always left me hungering for more information.  It was described as follows–Christo and Jeanne-Claude would come up with an idea and he would prepare drawings, scale models and descriptive items that could be sold to realize the full-scale project.  She was a driving force in other ways, particularly with financial affairs, permitting and when the project was going up on site– The only problem with this explanation was that it seemed to contradict an earlier history of sole attribution to Christo that had been in practice from the 1960’s through the 1980’s.

Around the time the Wrapped Reichstag project (1971-95) was nearing its completion– about 1994—Christo and Jeanne-Claude began to insist on retroactive joint attribution of all artworks from the 1960’s onwards that had previously been attributed to Christo.   They essentially re-branded themselves.  Before, they asserted they had been “Christo” and now they were instead “Christo and Jeanne-Claude.”     The problem I see in that is that it does not answer when or how she began to think of herself an as artist and it clashes with earlier comments Christo made about his artistic process.  In my mind, a large part of making art is declarative–asserting that what you are doing is art when you are doing it.  It is less powerful when it comes 30 years after the fact.  

Christo and Jeanne-Claude (image by Wolfgang Volz)

So in the 1990’s, it was asserted frequently that she and he shared equally in the creative process.  At other times during this period, Christo spoke of himself as the artist, the one who had absolute control over all the decisions.  There are quotes to back-up competing interpretations.   Their website has a section called “Common Errors” which explains it this way: “In 1994 they decided to officially change the artist name Christo into: the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. They have been working together since their first outdoor temporary work: “Dockside Packages, Cologne Harbor, 1961.” Because Christo was already an artist when they met in 1958 in Paris, and Jeanne-Claude was not an artist then, they have decided that their name will be ” Christo and Jeanne-Claude”, NOT Jeanne-Claude and Christo.” 

Nice dodge.  I would have loved to have spoken with them about the topic of authorship, though I suspect the conversation would not have been an easy one.  I suspect the truth is that they struggled with this and reached some negotiated decision and then set it aside and got back to work, which they seemed to thrive on.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude met in Paris, France, in November, 1958—Christo Javachef, a native Bulgarian from Gabrovo, was a young impoverished refugee artist, who had recognized artistic talent and had already wrapped a few things.  She was born in Casablanca, Morocco, where her father, Major Léon Denat was in the French military.  Her mother, Précilda, divorced Denat after Jeanne-Claude’s birth and remarried three times.  During WWII, Jeanne-Claude lived with her father’s family while her mother fought in the French Resistance.  In 1946, Précilda married the influential General Jacques de Guillebon and the family led a priviledged life in Berne from 1948 to 1951, then in Tunisia from 1952 to 1957.  In 1957 they returned to Paris and lived in comfort.  Jeanne-Claude earned a baccalaureate in Latin and philosophy in 1952 from the University of Tunis. 

Jeanne-Claude met Christo in Paris in 1958 while she–a young debutant– was enagaged to be married and he was painting a portrait of her mother.  It is well-known that Christo invited her to his place to see his real artwork—sculptural pieces which were a series of wrapped found objects—and that she thought he was crazy but she was hooked.  She became pregnant by Christo but married her fiance, an older man, and then divorced him immediately and took up with Christo, delivering their child Cyril in 1960.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

The couple not only share the same birthday but the same time of birth on June 13, 1935. They emigrated to New York from Paris in 1964 and worked together for over 40  years creating temporary artistic interventions involving covering, wrapping or altering landscapes.  Iconic best describes their impact.  Many people I have spoken with have mentioned a sense of the spiritual and others see it as a kind of architectural humor.    Whatever the reaction, is it deep and memorable–no one walks away from one of their installations without being stirred.  Their projects have been immortalized in six films by filmmaker Albert Maysles, whose first film “Christo’s Valley Curtain” was nominated for an oscar.   German filmmaker Wolfram Hissen also paid homage to the couple with his 1996 film “To the German People: The Wrapped Reichstag.” 

 My favorites of their 18 realized projects  are “ Running Fence” (1972-74),  “Pont Neuf Wrapped” (Paris, 1975-85) and  “Wrapped Reichstag”  (Berlin, 1971-1995)—all of which required years of planning and lengthy campaigns to obtain the necessary permits.  In September, Jeanne-Claude, with a mixture of pride and weariness, reminisced about the tenacity these bureaucratic interfaces required, particularly “The Running Fence” which was one of their earliest big projects.  I think it is fair to say that everyone in attendance at the event was proud that Christo and Jeanne-Claude had cut their teeth for these projects here on our home turf.   And, what a battle it was– they perservered and, in the end, created the most lyrical outdoor intervention ever.

 While the couple were long-term residents of New York, “The Gates” (1979-2005) was the only project they succeeded in installing in New York City, in Central Park.  They signed a 43 page contract with the city of New York before they could install the 7,503 orange fabric panels of varying heights that graced Central Park for 16 days.

The couple’s website is the best place to read about their work.   Whatever they have declared about the change from “Christo” to “Christo and Jeanne-Claude”, the institutions that house the artworks done by Christo’s hand have not followed suit with retroactive joint attribution.  That may or may not be important to Christo, who survives his wife and, according to their website, plans to continue on creating in both their names.    

SFMOMA has a number of photos and drawings by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in their collection with attribution solely to Christo Javacheff.  Images of “The Running Fence” dominate their Christo holdings and were accessioned in 1977, a year after the project was realized.  None of these are currently on display.  The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) has 22 of Christo’s drawings, attributed solely to Christo (Christo Javacheff).  Ditto for the Smithsonian American Art Museum which in 2008 acquired the complete documentation of “The Running Fence.”  The title of the exhibition does credit Jeanne-Claude—“Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76, A Documentation Exhibition.” 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s artworks are temporary and immortal, living on in our dreams long after they have been taken down.   As a new cycle now begins for Jeanne-Claude that is even richer than her time here on earth, may she smile as she wraps heaven in shimmering fabrics.

November 20, 2009 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“The Running Fence at 33″…an extended family gathers round Christo and Jeanne-Claude… we’re all older but the fence lives on

Jeanne-Claude and Christo looking over the map of the Sonoma and Marin county properties that their 1976 Running Fence traversed.  Many of the original properties, working ranches, have been sold or subdivided.

Jeanne-Claude and Christo looking over the map of the Sonoma and Marin county properties that their 1976 Running Fence traversed. Many of the original properties, working ranches, have been sold or subdivided.

“The Running Fence at 33,” turned out to be a folksy get-together yesterday afternoon at Bloomfield Park, reuniting what has become a sprawling extended family of friends and well-wishers in the little community that Christo and Jeanne Claude called home for four years while they battled bureaucrats in Sonoma and Marin counties to get their project approved.  Nearly 100 people showed up—all a bit older than the last time they met and all eager to reminisce about the billowing white canvas fence that has lived on in their hearts and even in the fickle contemporary art world.  German filmmaker Wolfram Hissen who has been here all week shooting a documentary film about the fence had his camera rolling capturing the event.  

German filmmaker Wolfram Hissen was on hand to capture the festivities for his new film "The Running fence at 33" which will open with the Christo exhibition at the Smithsonian in April 2010

German filmmaker Wolfram Hissen was on hand to capture the festivities for his new film "The Running fence at 33" which will open with the Christo exhibition at the Smithsonian in April 2010

“It was a project that changed my life,” said Christo, slipping in and out of nostalgic reflections all afternoon while discussing topics that ranged from the project’s vexing bureaucracy, to how many of the original ranches had survived, to his wild hair.  Jeanne-Claude, with her own signature orange hair (brighter than it was the last time the couple visited), smiled and agreed, “It was really something, something big.”  The couple seemed perfectly content to sign posters and photos, give hugs and look over photo albums, many of them carrying captions that had been made on now-archaic typewriters.  The unspoken truth— like the yellowing pages of those very collectible Christo running fence art books, we’re aging…farmers are starting to pass and many of their dairy and cattle ranches have been split up too.  For that reason, no one seemed to mind that their every move was being documented by Hissen and will likely become footage in his documentary film “The Running Fence, 33 Years Later” that will launch in conjunction with the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition about the fence in Washington D.C. on April 2, 2010.  

 “The Running Fence” is the biggest work of art that has ever graced the Bay Area—the 24 mile-long 18 foot high steel pole and canvas fence ran from Dillon Beach to Cotati, and was visible from Highway 101.  Done as part of America’s 1976 Bicentennial Celebration, it seems fitting it was conceived of by a Bulgarian-born conceptual artist who had relocated to Paris and then New York.   The project was in place for just two weeks in 1976 but it was four years in the making, transected 59 local ranches and it took a virtual army of volunteers to build, some of whom came from as far as New York to help out.   Many of the locals who agreed to let Christo run his project through their property have passed on, but their children were there to let Christo and Jean-Claude know how the project touched them.  Indeed, over the years, the fence has come to define the small community of farmers who joined with Christo and Jeanne-Claude to fight for art’s right to exist for its own sake. 

 

Jeanne-Calude greets old friend Rosy Ielmorini.  "The Running Fence" ran through Ielmorini's dairy farm and she has since visited three other Christo projects.

Jeanne-Calude greets old friend Rosy Ielmorini. "The Running Fence" ran through Ielmorini's dairy farm and she has since visited three other Christo projects.

Rosy Ielmorini, now 75, remembers the day she met Christo.  “He drove in one day with Jeanne-Claude, just inside our driveway, and you know how you do when you see a strange face in your yard, you just watch for a little while, so I did that.  Well, he started talking with my husband and I don’t know how it happened but pretty soon he was just around here a lot.  We had dairy you know, ranching and that life, and here was this artist, and my, did he talk.  I didn’t understand all this art stuff at first but I kept soaking it up and I got totally involved.  When it was going up, I was beside myself.”  Jeanne-Claude holds Rosy very dear–“I saw her on the bridge in Paris, at the pink Surrounded Islands, the Umbrellas”—that means so much to us.”

One of the afternoon’s more touching moments came when Susan Nowacki and her sister, Amy Sabourin, daughters of Jean Mickelsen presented Jeanne-Claude with a story their mother had written about the fence.  The fence went through the Mickeslen dairy farm out on Pepper Road.  (The ranch has since been sold to the Camozzi family.)  Jean Mickelson passed away in 2004 but she dictated the story to her caregiver after having a stroke and it was that copy, replete with typos, that was presented to Jeanne-Claude.  Mickelson is legendary in fence lore because it was she who made the oft-quoted apple pie statement—“When there was a lot of hullabaloo in the community about should this fence be allowed or not, mom and dad were very supportive of it,” said Susan Nowacki.  “Mom went before the Board of Supervisors and a lot of people who were saying that a temporary fence isn’t an artwork because it won’t last.  Mom said ‘Well, when I make a really good apple pie, it doesn’t last but people really like it and I think it’s an artwork.  The Board of Supervisors heard that and passed it and that’s how mom became famous.”

Well-wishers gathered at Bloomfield Park to meet Christo and Jeanne-Claude and many saw younger-versions of themselves in the numerous photographs that were posted and circulated at the gathering.

As well-wishers gathered at Bloomfield Park to meet Christo and Jeanne-Claude, many saw younger-versions of themselves in the numerous photographs that were posted and circulated at the gathering.

 Amy Sabourin, Nowacki’s sister, was a student at Petaluma High School at the time (class of 1974)and she recalls her parents hosting Christo and Jean-Claude in their living room for various fence-related meetings.  By the time the project was completed she was in college and saw it while visiting home.  “I thought it was very neat.  I will never forget the way it extended into the ocean.”  The Bloomfield gathering was “a little awkward” for Sabourin because she was there representing her mother who had passed and the finality of her loss really hit home.  The pieces of the fence their family kept were pretty dirty by the time fence came down but cherished.  Her mother made tablecloths out of one section and raffled them off amongst her card-playing friends.  Sobourin used her piece as Christmas tree skirt.

Shirley Handy was living in Petaluma at the time and learned of the project through the unemployment office. 

Shirley Handy, 19 at the time, recalls shifts that started at 3 a.m. and scaling tall poles

Shirley Handy, 19 at the time, recalls shifts that started at 3 a.m. and scaling tall poles

“It was a real job and we worked hard.  Our shift started at 3 a.m. They had to make sure it wasn’t too hot out. They provided everything—food, drinks, potties.”  Handy says that, at first, she approached it as a job but once she learned that a man had come from New York just to work on the project, her attitude changed.  “As the project materialized, I began to see it as art and that was very nice.”  The most memorable aspect of the project was “going up the poles and actually putting the fence up.  You had to have a harness and to know what you were doing.  It was something you never thought you’d do at age 19. .. OR.. when they told us, that we were taking the fence down into the water; that was something that had been kept hush-hush. That was well, very exciting.”    Handy said that she deeply touched when Jeanne-Claude gave her a big kiss and asked how she’d been.

 

Jeanne Claude, ARThound (Geneva Anderson) and Christo recall the fence which was Anderson's first exposure to a large-scale, environmental art project.  Anderson later worked as journalist in Christo's native Bulgaria.

Jeanne Claude, ARThound (Geneva Anderson) and Christo recall the fence which was Anderson's first exposure to a large-scale, environmental art project. Anderson later worked as journalist in Christo's native Bulgaria.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum purchased the full archives of the Running Fence project from Christo in 2008, about 350 individual items, including 46 hand-drawn preparatory sketches and collages by Christo, as well as the full environmental impact report which is significant because this is the first environmental impact statement ever done for a work of art.  This material was put together by Christo in 1977 as a running fence documentary exhibition that traveled around Europe and the US.  The Smithsonian will exhibit this material as well the 1978 Albert and David Maysles film “Running Fence” and Wolfram Hissan’s new film.  The show is called “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the ‘Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76,’ A Documentation Exhibition” and it opens April 2, 2010, in Washington and will travel nationally. 

 George Gurney, deputy chief curator at the Smithsonian, in charge of the exhibition, was directing traffic and I spoke to him amidst cars moving in and out of the field adjacent to Bloomfield Park.  Gurney has made a few trips to Northern, CA. but he didn’t actually see the fence but he says he understands why Christo chose this spot.  “It’s the topography, such a contrast between the coast and the hills and clumps of trees.  The fence took advantage of the very sculptural nature of the land—kind of surfacing and hiding in that land.  I think the landscape was very deterministic….This project really put him on the map.  He really had to overcome a lot to get it done and you don’t forget that.  It was also a taste of the future in terms of what he could expect.”   Gurney would not discuss how much the Smithsonian paid for the archives but said that it was understood that the Smithsonian would keep the material together and exhibit it nationally.

wellwishers agthered all afternoon at Bloomfield Park for "The Running Fence at 33" a day to reminisce and reconnect with what has become a large extended family

Locals gathered all afternoon Saturday at Bloomfield Park for "The Running Fence at 33," a day to reminisce and reconnect with what has become a large extended family.

The Bloomfield event was not without its own homegrown artworks.  After the project was dismantled, the local ranchers were given all the materials that ran through their property—in some cases that meant several huge 68 foot wide nylon canvas panels and lots of piping.  Mary Ann Bruhn, daughter of Lester Bruhn, who played a tremendous role in initially persuading local farmers to support the project,  helped organize the gathering and was very happy about the turnout.  “This was so important to our family,” said Bruhn.   She brought a tablecloth and a blazer that her mother, Amelia, had sewn from a small portion of just one their running fence panels.  Other farmers told of using the piping for fencing projects and the canvas for windbreaks and tarping.  Bruhn is now a hairdresser in Petaluma and said she never cut Christo’s hair but often thought about it.

September 13, 2009 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Running Fence at 33–Christo and Jeanne-Claude visit Sonoma County September 12, 2009

Christo and Jeanne-Claude Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76, Photo: Wolfgang Voltz @1976 Christo

Christo and Jeanne-Claude Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76, Photo: Wolfgang Voltz @1976 Christo

ARThound is SO happy that Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Running Fence (1972-76), the project that inspired my great love of art and graced our golden hills in 1976 is in the limelight again.  We will have a chance to meet Christo and Jeanne-Claude Saturday, September 12, 2009, when they speak in Bloomfield about their experiences with fence.

 The Running Fence was monumental in all regards–a lyrical white fabric curtain twenty-four and one-half miles long and eighteen feet high that linked Cotati at Highway 101 to the Pacific Ocean at Bodega Bay.  Few stories are more inspirational in the artworld that that of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s struggle to persuade Sonoma and Marin County locals to proceed with this grand project which began in 1972 and was completed on September 10, 1976.  It took forty-two months of collaborative effort, two-hundred and forty thousand yards (over two million square feet) of heavy woven white nylon fabric, ninety miles of steel cable, two thousand and fifty poles embedded three feet into the ground, and fourteen thousand earth anchors.  The de-installation began two weeks after the fence was completed, and all materials were removed entirely from the site and given to local ranchers. This whole experience—the hearings, the media coverage, the building of the fence, seeing the fence several times daily, the post-event sale of pieces of the fence–was a memorable part of my

Christo and Jeanne-Claude Runnng Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California 1972-76, Photo: Jeanne-Claude @1976 Christo

Christo and Jeanne-Claude Runnng Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California 1972-76, Photo: Jeanne-Claude @1976 Christo

childhood.   Christo, at the time, described the project as “a celebration of the landscape” and indeed it was perhaps the first large-scale art project focusing on the natural beauty of rural northern California landscape, a route has since become a famous tourist destination.  It will be a pleasure to welcome back the couple that introduced our unique landscape to the artworld. 

 Among commemorative projects in the works “The Running Fence Revisited Proposal,” a collaboration between the Sonoma County Museum and Wowhaus to publish a book and mount an exhibition exploring all aspects of the fence.   Filmmaker Wolfram Hissen, who did the documentary  “To the German People:  The Wrapped Reichstag”  is also making a film about the Running Fence, out 2010.   

 “The Running Fence at 33” 2 to 5 pm, Saturday, September 12, Bloomfield Park, 6700 Bloomfield Road, between Petaluma and Valley Ford.

September 3, 2009 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments