Vail Symposium celebrates ‘Valley Curtain’ 50th anniversary, reveals original idea for Aspen location

Artifacts from Christo and Jean-Claude’s ‘Valley Curtain’ project on display at a recent Vail Symposium event. The collection was made available from Vail artists Dan Telleen, Randy Milhoan and Jim Cotter, who were on site during the curtain’s unveiling near Rifle, Colorado, in August of 1972.

“Valley Curtain” was first planned for the Aspen area, and a drawing from that iteration of the project – which was only recently unearthed from the Christo and Jeanne-Claude collection – will be on display there in August.

This and other interesting details related to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s famous Colorado project were revealed to a room full of attendees at the Vail Symposium’s recent event titled, “Reflecting on the 50th anniversary of ‘Valley Curtain’ and the artists’ legacy.”

The event contained a panel of guests related to the project, including Vail artist Dan Telleen, whose van was featured in a memorable photo of the curtain from Wolfgang Volz. Professor David Yust discussed Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s connection to Colorado State University.

The event examined the 28 hours in which the 200,200 square-foot orange curtain hung from a canyon above Colorado Highway 325 near Rifle on August 10-11, 1972, and its dramatic conclusion, in which Christo expressed excitement in the project’s demise when wind ripped the fabric.

Christo’s nephew Vladimir Yavachev, now the operations and project operations director for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s posthumous work, attended electronically from Bulgaria, where Christo was born. Although “Valley Curtain” was planned to last nearly a month, Yavachev described its 28-hour run as a tremendous success.

“I think 28 hours was way too long for the ‘Valley Curtain,’” Yavachev said. “Because it’s such a crazy idea, covering Rifle Gap with fabric, the smallest gust can rip it.”

And that’s what happened, Yavachev said, exactly to plan.

“It didn’t actually come down, it went up,” Yavachev said. “Because the fuses that were planted into the cable connection at the bottom so the actual fabric would not come down, it would be released and go up, so the weakest connection was at the bottom of the cable so the fabric would not come down.”

Telleen, who worked on the project, said the tear happened near the section of the curtain he was working. Telleen shared the original identification tags that were attached to the rope he was working, which he had signed by Christo.

After learning from Yavachev the story behind the curtain releasing according to plan in that location, “I’m really glad to know now that it was planned to tear right there,” Telleen said with a laugh.

Aspen connection

Jeanne-Claude’s nephew Jonathan Henery, the manager of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s studio and offices, attended the Vail Symposium event in person on Thursday and described how the artists were invited to attend John and Kimiko Powers Aspen Center for Contemporary Art in the early 1970s, an invitation which helped create “Valley Curtain.”

Henery, in examining Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s remaining estate, discovered original drawings of the “Valley Curtain” idea from 1970, depicting the curtain hanging in the Aspen area. Henery said the Aspen pieces are important works related to the history of the project which have, in recent months, been properly framed and readied for display.

“You can go next week, it will be at the Hexton Gallery in Aspen,” Henery said. “We lent it to them specifically for this anniversary show.”

In describing one of the 1970 Aspen pieces to the audience, Henery said he “found it in our storage” and described it as an “incredible gem.”

Reused materials

A show of hands revealed that several in attendance were there when the curtain went up in 1972, including local artists Jim Cotter and Randy Milhoan. Jim Cotter’s daughter Ramsey Cotter helped organize the symposium event along with the SummerVail Art Workshop Legacy Project. Milhoan brought original pieces of fabric from the project to display in the lobby.

Attendees learned about the many applications for the industrial strength fabric that was Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work.

In “Running Fence,” another large-scale fabric project completed a few years after “Valley Curtain,” the promise of reusing the materials helped seal the deal for land owners to allow Christo and Jeanne-Claude to install the project on their property.

“At the end of the project, the steel poles, the cables and all that fabric was given by the artists to those ranchers, they got to keep it and they used it,” Henery said. “This is valuable materials, fencing and agriculture purposes. If you go to these ranches, you might see some there.”

Yavachev said the fabric for “Running Fence” was sourced from General Motors, which was working on airbag technology.

“It was weaved the wrong way, so they had all this fabric that they couldn’t use because the airbag would not work with those stitchings,” Yavachev said.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude learned of the General Motors fabric “which fit exactly what they wanted to do,” Yavachev said.

“In general the projects – all the steel, the fabric, the ropes – are always industrially recycled, because they’re valuable materials,” Yavachev said.

Yavachev also described the plans for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s final project, which is still in the works.

Known as “The Mastaba,” the project is envisioned to be the largest contemporary sculpture (in volume) in the world, made from 410,000 multi-colored barrels to form a colorful mosaic, echoing Islamic architecture. “The Mastaba” is being planned for Abu Dhabi and was conceived in 1977, Yavachev said.

Henery said he planned to visit Aspen to help ready the show for Hexton Gallery before returning to New York, where Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s office is based.

Hexton Gallery will display the Aspen “Valley Curtain” works recently discovered by Henery from August 1 to September 15 in an exhibit called “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Ephemeral Nature.”

In describing the artists’ large-scale work like “Valley Curtain,” Henery said the projects represented freedom.

“Nobody can buy the project, nobody can own the project, nobody can charge tickets,” he said. “They are there for a few days, and they’re gone.”

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