Geneva Anderson digs into art

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