Christo’s curtain: Short-lived but a lasting impact
Ryan Summerlin September 4, 2014
“It will be a Curtain made of woven synthetic fabric, suspended on a steel cable, about 1,500 feet long, anchored to the two mountain tops with foundations. The Curtain will span 1,200 feet wide with a height curving from about 300 feet at the foundations to 180 feet at the center of the Curtain. The synthetic fabric will be loosely woven and will therefore permit to see, through the Curtain, some of the other side of the Valley.”
— Christo, March 1970
Anticipation and anxiety rippled throughout the Valley Curtain site at Rifle Gap the morning of Aug. 10, 1972. More than two years of artistic vision, planning, gaining approval and access, engineering and construction led to the time when Christo’s Valley Curtain was to be unfurled from high above Rifle Gap. For months, this was a project creating great curiosity. Even with the best plans, no one knew for sure what would happen.
Bulgarian born Christo Javacheff, aged 37, was making a name for himself internationally as an environmental artist. His works were designed to be temporary, without lasting environmental impact, and leaving no trace of their existence after the project was dismantled. His wife, Jean-Claude, collaborated with him on his works and contributed ideas and physical labor to his projects. For the couple, the art they created did not need to last indefinitely. Christo and Jean-Claude believed that a project continued to be artistically appreciated through their drawings, models, engineering plans, photographs and books. The work itself did not need to physically exist to continue to contribute to the world.
Finding the perfect setting for his Valley Curtain Project centered the attentions of Christo and Jean-Claude on Western Colorado. Any valley considered required proximity to a town so economic benefits would also be gained. Three sites near Aspen, three on the Fryingpan River, one on the Crystal River, one on Thompson Creek near Carbondale, one near Cottonwood Pass in Eagle County, one at Canyon Creek, and the Rifle Gap site were all considered. For Christo’s art, the orientation of the curtain at Rifle Gap would provide changing light and a changing curtain reflection. For Rifle, a town of a few thousand people, the dollars brought in by construction workers and visitors would be an economic boost.
Stanley Kansgen, owner of the property at Rifle Gap, leased the site to Christo’s Valley Curtain Corp. in January 1971. Christo and his representatives then began working their way through the political details required on federal, state and local levels. They received a warm reception by officials from the town of Rifle and from the nearby Rifle Golf Course, worked favorably with state transportation officials on the impacts to Highway 325, and confirmed plans with utilities for power and telephone to the site.
From April to October 1971, contractors installed the anchors and cables required to hang and stabilize the curtain, often working high above the valley floor. During this time, a Connecticut company was dying 250,000 square feet of nylon polyamide fabric a vibrant orange color, and then sent the fabric to Richwood, West Virginia, where it would be made into the curtain.
The rolled curtain was elevated into position on Oct. 9, 1971. However, a forceful gust of wind prematurely allowed the curtain to drop, damaging the fabric on the rocks below. Undaunted, Christo announced another attempt scheduled for the summer of 1972.
A newly manufactured curtain, rolled, hung above the valley floor in the early morning of Aug. 10, 1972. A rubber cocoon, which protected the curtain, had been removed, allowing 27 tie ropes to drop to the ground. Ironworkers above waited for the signal to unlace the daisy chain to start the unfurling of the curtain. The winds of Rifle Gap generally lulled between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., for three to 40 minutes.
At 9:05 a.m. the signal was given, and the curtain began its descent, a rippling blaze of copper orange running across the valley and down to the floor. It stopped just short of fully opening, but the waiting ironworkers again braved the heights to correct a problem with the daisy chain. The unfurling was completed. Volunteers quickly tied the curtain to the anchors.
Shouts of joy filled the air. Construction workers, volunteers, Christo and Jean-Claude hugged in relief, awe and congratulation. Once the workers and spectators departed, and quiet descended on the site, Christo took time to review his work alone. As the wind rustled the Curtain, the Curtain moved and breathed with its environment, nearly becoming as organic as its setting.
Christo from the outset of the project knew that the wind could not be ignored. In just 28 hours after the Valley Curtain was unveiled, winds believed to be at about 60 miles an hour took the Valley Curtain down. But for those few hours, the Curtain was a punctuation mark in the narrative of the arid western landscape. It was physically fixed by man, but its meaning made abstract and variable by human experience and interpretation. It was art.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary,” which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Summer hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.