Christo, Artist of ‘Running Fence,’ Dies at Age 84

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Running Fence, Christo and Jean-Claude, 1976
photo by Jeanne-Claude; courtesy christojeanneclaude.net

There are those in the North Bay who remember “Running Fence,” the 24-and-a-half-mile-long art installation that criss-crossed its way through the hills of Western Marin and Sonoma County for two weeks in 1976.

The massive temporary art installation was one of many monumental artworks conceived and created around the world by artist Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and his partner in life and art, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon; who together were simply known as Christo and Jean-Claude.

Christo died peacefully in his New York City home on May 31, at the age of 84. A statement from his estate noted that he died of natural causes.

While Christo and Jean-Claude (who died in 2009) are gone, their artworks-in-progress continue, with “L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped” in Paris, France, still on track for September–October 2021.

Moreover, their ambitious array of temporary installations such as “Running Fence”—which exceeded the boundaries of any one medium art by combining site-specific architecture, sculpture, assemblage and fabric art—are forever imprinted in the memories of those who witnessed them firsthand.

Born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, in 1935, Christo first met Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon in  Paris in 1958 when he painted a commissioned portrait of her mother. Together, the two artists embarked upon a career in art marked by their “wrapped” aesthetic, in which they covered entire coastlines, valleys or skyscrapers in colorful fabric.

In 1969, Jeanne-Claude and Christo made an international splash with “Wrapped Coast,” in which they used erosion-control fabric and 35 miles of rope to literally wrap the cliff-lined coast of Little Bay, in Sydney, Australia. They followed that with “The Valley Curtain,” a 1,300-foot-long cloth stretched across Rifle Gap in the Rocky Mountains near Rifle, Colorado, in 1972.

Perhaps the couple’s most famous work was their North Bay installation, “Running Fence,” which is remembered not only for its massive scale, but for its four-year process of realization. The installation, inspired by a snow fence Christo and Jean-Claude saw while driving along the Continental Divide in 1972, was conceived as an 18-foot-high fence of white, billowing nylon snaking along the hills of Sonoma and Marin County west of Highway 101.

The idea was for the fence to highlight the hilly topography of the North Bay, though they had to convince ranchers and other locals to let them do it, an ordeal that took 18 public hearings and three sessions in California’s superior courts before reaching approval. The installation itself, which began in April 1976, included some 400 workers stretching the reported 240,000 square-yards of woven nylon canvas between more than 2,000 steel poles.

When completed in September of 1976, “Running Fence” drew visitors from around the world to the North Bay for its two-week duration. The fence’s route crossed 14 roads and 59 private ranches as it wound its way from near Highway 101 to the Pacific Ocean near Bodega Bay.

No real trace of “Running Fence” remains on those ranches and along the roads leading to the coast, though a piece of the nylon hangs in the Rio Theater in Monte Rio and historical markers commemorate the work in Valley Ford. For those who could not see the Fence when it was up, several photos of the work, along with sketches and other documents, are on display on Christo and Jean-Claude’s website.

Local fans included Charles Schulz, who praised Christo and Jean-Claude in his Peanuts comic strip in 1978 by showing Snoopy’s doghouse wrapped in the artist’s signature fabric. In 2003, Christo returned the favor by presenting a wrapped doghouse to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa.

After “Running Fence,” Christo and Jean-Claude continued to make headlines with art installations such as “The Umbrellas,” in which yellow and blue umbrellas were placed in Southern California and Japan, respectively. Those umbrellas were in place from 1984–1991.

In 2005, the couple installed “The Gates” in New York City’s Central Park, featuring over 7,500 saffron-colored sheets of fabric placed overhead along the park’s walkways. After Jean-Claude’s death in 2009, the pair’s conceived works continued on, with “The Floating Piers” in Italy, 2016, and “The London Mastaba,” made up of 7,500 oil barrels in the shape of an ancient Mesopotamian bench, in 2018.

In reporting his death, Christo’s office offered the following statement: “Christo lived his life to the fullest, not only dreaming up what seemed impossible but realizing it. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s artwork brought people together in shared experiences across the globe, and their work lives on in our hearts and memories.”

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