The debate over the artist Christo’s latest scheme – he wants to canopy part of the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado in 2014 -- shouldn’t simply be about art. Rather, it should be viewed as a jobs proposal, and on that ground I’d say, Why not?
Certainly, Christo is an artist, maybe even the century's greatest environmental artist, as I heard him described back in 1998, at a packed house of 500 people in Longmont, Colo. They’d come to hear him pitch the then-nascent Arkansas River project, which would intermittently cover a 42-mile stretch of river with 5.9 miles of luminous panels. But I like to think of Christo as a world-class capitalist, who has brought the art of fund-raising to near-perfection. Now he wants to invest, temporarily, in Colorado.
Christo Javacheff was born in Bulgaria, in a small mountain town called Garbovo, a place I’ve visited. It’s where the Javacheff family prospered from chemical manufacturing before the Communists nationalized the operations.
Garbovo is the home of the internationally recognized House of Humor and Satire. Enterprising residents established the humor-satire gallery, maybe because for years, they’ve had to endure dumb Balkan jokes along the lines of, “Did you know that people in Garbovo are so cheap they cut tails off cats so when they enter houses in winter, less heat escapes?”
In the 1950s, Christo fled Bulgaria for Paris, where he met Jeanne-Claude, his wife and partner, who died recently. It was there, in 1962, that he stacked a wall of oil barrels to protest the Iron Curtain. The barrier was classic 1960s political action, and it shut down central Paris traffic for two hours.
After the couple moved to New York City in 1964, they began honing their skills at financing big projects. "We wish to see it, and the only way to do that is to build it," said Jeanne-Claude. Christo deployed architecture and dogged determination to pull off some admittedly amazing feats of both art and social engineering -- the wrapped Reichstag in Berlin, his 1972 Rifle Gap drapes, those blue-and-yellow umbrellas in Japan and California, and the orange-topped gates that marched across a snowy Central Park in New York.
“It's all perfectly straightforward,” said Jeanne-Claude in Longmont 13 years ago. "People come and see (the drawings) and give us money. It's a simple proposition. We could be buying yachts, or big houses in Aspen or a Rolls Royce,” she added.
But aside from the sheer beauty of rippling fabrics –– and admiration for the ego-driven determination that’s willing to wait years to pull off an event like this –– what’s gone missing is any sort of political or even environmental message.
It's Christo’s money, after all, but why not use the spotlight to get people thinking? Perhaps he could try wrapping one of our architecturally awful Western strip malls. I asked him about that back in Longmont, when the couple fielded questions from the audience. And why, I asked him, didn’t he want to do something to highlight what’s gone on in his native Bulgaria after communism? Capitalism had proved anything but a savior, and though Bulgaria joined the European Union, it was plagued by a gaggle of small-time, violent mafias.
“Nope.” That was the short answer. Malls and Bulgaria weren't on the Christo radar. Later, at a reception, I approached Christo and Jeanne-Claude and asked them to sign a satiric Bulgarian postcard my wife and I had brought back from our travels. “Sorry,” Christo said. Apparently we had to buy something. “Well, could we just give you one?” we offered. "I have everything I want from there," he replied, coldly.
During the question-and-answer period, one audience member asked Christo why the Arkansas River had to be canopied; why not just design but not put in place the shiny overhead panels? No, they must be built, Christo and Jeanne-Claude insisted. And once the installation has been seen for a limited time, they said, they would make sure that everything was restored or recycled.
They're "works of art," Jeanne-Claude said, giving "joy and beauty, with absolutely no purpose.”
When we stopped in Garbovo in Bulgaria to see the House of Humor and Satire, we noticed that the biggest draw was the satirists who slice a knife into hypocrisy and the cruelties of life, always on a dangerous edge. Someday, perhaps, Christo will return to his Balkan roots.
In the meantime, his much-ballyhooed Arkansas River project might be an economic boost for the region. But let’s not fret over whether Colorado or the West could lose out on a big art opportunity if it’s not approved.
Paul Krza is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in New Mexico.