The magnificent monumental sculptures of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s are familiar from pictures: photographs of the saffron-colored fabric suspended over Central Park for 2004’s The Gates, images of a government building Berlin sheathed in vinyl for 1995’s Wrapped Reichstag, shots of land masses around Miami’s Biscayne Bay ringed in pink for 1983’s Surrounded Islands. Less familiar are the moving pictures of the behind-the-scenes process that led to the making of such artworks—all in the form of documentaries (many of them directed by Albert and David Maysles) that have been largely unavailable, until now.
As of last week, the Criterion Channel, a subscription digital streaming service run by the Criterion Collection, is spotlighting documentaries about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s sculptures, partly as a tribute to the passing of Christo, who died this past May at 84. These are valuable documents of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s process, and they don’t shy away from the banal and sometimes painstakingly difficult task of getting local officials to allow these majestic sculptures to be realized. They’re must-see films, even for the most casual Christo and Jeanne-Claude fans.
The Criterion Channel’s series focuses on eight films. Below, a look at a few highlights.
Christo’s Valley Curtain (1974)
Albert and David Maysles (the brother duo behind films such as Grey Gardens and Salesman as well as the most widely seen documentation of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece) were pioneers of a style called direct cinema, which aspires toward a kind of documentary filmmaking that refuses to rely on talking heads and slick editing. Christo’s Valley Curtain, which they made with Ellen Giffard, is a perfect example of that style. Its rawness draws the viewer into Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s process as they built one of their first grand creations, 1972’s Valley Curtain, in which they unfurled more than 200,000 square feet of red-orange fabric over a valley in Rifle, Colorado. The project remained on view for just 28 hours, before a gale-force wind forced its removal. But in that time, cars could pass beneath it, and their riders could gaze up at the billowing fabric above them.
Raising that fabric was no small task, and much of this Oscar-nominated short film follows workers as they attempt to roll out one portion nylon that won’t budge. Even though Christo had created numerous maquettes and sketches of the project (we even see him put a fan up against a model to test how the work will fare in the wind), he and Jeanne-Claude couldn’t account for all the chance mishaps that threatened to ruin their vision. But the Maysles could account for much of the work they put into it, and this documentary stands as the best account of the project.
Running Fence (1977)
To realize their sculptures, Christo and Jeanne-Claude had to navigate a complex array of bureaucratic hindrances, convincing politicians at all levels that their art was worth realizing. Running Fence, which ranks among the duo’s most ambitious projects, involved stretching 24.5 miles of fabric across California’s Sonoma and Marin counties, in the process bisecting farmland, fields, and even some secluded roads. Naturally, the project aroused the suspicion of locals, many of whom, believing the project wasn’t how art should look, inveighed politicians to ban the work. Wisely, the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin devote most of their film to these behind-the-scenes machinations. In one stunning sequence, a particularly concerned local says before a political committee, “If we allow the Running Fence Corporation to use agriculturally zoned land for what amounts to books and movies and advertising for their happenings and theatrical gestures, I submit that it would be logically very difficult to refuse permits to other commercial activities, carnivals, rock concerts, motorcycle races, whatever.” The filmmakers cut to Jeanne-Claude, who appears to be just barely stifling a laugh.
Indeed, politicians went after Running Fence and tried to keep portions of it from being realized, and this documentary thrillingly recounts all the various workarounds the artists had to find in order to see their vision into reality. Toward the end, the film jolts to life, as Christo and Jeanne-Claude narrowly avoid legal action while workers go hungry in the midst of working in heated conditions. There’s so much tension that you could nearly miss a brief appearance from Lynn Hershman Leeson, another feted artist who served as a project director on Running Fence.
[Read Lynn Hershman Leeson’s account of working on Running Fence.]
Some of the films about Christo and Jeanne-Claude came off as fawning or overly laudatory. (Such was the case with Christo in Paris, from 1990, which paid homage to the artists’ intense—and rather adorable—love life. They shared a birthday, which both believed meant they were destined for one another.) Umbrellas, by contrast, is critical of its subjects, making Christo and Jeanne-Claude seem mercurial and disorganized. It also calls into question whether their work The Umbrellas (1984–91), an ambitious work staged partly in Japan and partly in California, was worth it in the end, given that it ultimately killed two people: a viewer who was crushed after an umbrella lifted by the wind threw her against a boulder, and a worker who helped dismantle the piece in the wake of that tragedy.
Over the course of a tense 80 minutes, Henry Corra, Albert Maysles, and Grahame Weinbren chronicle how such a work came to be. We watch as Christo directs workers to erect 3,100 umbrellas weighing 485 pounds each in two disparate valleys, and we get to see onlookers consider the spectacle before them. Though beautiful to behold, The Umbrellas was rightly regarded by some as misguided in its execution, and the filmmakers do not stint on representing the chaos surrounding it. In one revealing sequence, Christo brings traffic to a halt on a Japanese road so that he can admire his and Jeanne-Claude’s creation from afar—a small sign of just how far he’d go to bask in the beauty of his grand art.