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How Christo Fenced Us In

For two weeks in 1976, a billowing white fabric fence traced the hills of Sonoma and Marin counties in California, following the rise and dip of its arid land for 24.5 miles until it finally slipped into the sea.

Detractors said artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, creators of the fence, were Soviet spies who wanted the fence to serve as a target for intercontinental ballistic missiles. Others said they were tools of real estate developers who would attract foreigners to the ranch land to buy up property.

The truth was far more benign and far more beautiful. “Running Fence,” as it was called, was an American take on
the Great Wall of China — extensive, ambitious, absurd. But if fences serve to block off and protect, “Running Fence” acted more like 18-foot-high sails steering the earth onto a different course.

And now the Smithsonian American Art Museum has an exhibit celebrating that two-week installation, “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the ‘Running Fence.'” Far from a recollection of an event that took place 34 years ago, the exhibit manages to capture the spirit of the work. For those who were not able to see “Running Fence” in 1976, the museum has gathered photographs, drawings, stories and even a portion of the fabric itself, for a first-time reflection. In fact, the archive of “Running Fence” is the first major work of the couple acquired by a museum.

Director Betsy Broun called the fence “the most inspiring of all [of Christo’s] major projects,” adding that it was “brief, joyous and beautiful — but wholly useless.”

The Smithsonian exhibit captures that sentiment, with a constantly changing 22-foot-high slideshow of photographs from the event, 46 of Christo’s drawings planning the fence and even a 58-foot-long scale model showing the way the fence crossed the terrain, across roads and rivers, up hills and finally reaching the ocean.

What set “Running Fence” apart from other Christo works was its reflection of the earth itself. Light shone through the fabric, so that photographs show the material glowing at certain points in the day. The wind would make the fabric puff out like a cloud. So many of the works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude seemed too obscure; think of the 1995 wrapping of Berlin’s Reichstag building or the surrounded islands of Biscayne Bay in Miami from 1983. “Wrapped Trees,” done in Switzerland in 1998, also seems more of a smothering of the trees than anything else.

But, like Christo’s 2005 “The Gates” in New York City, “Running Fence” lays gently on the land. Photographs show cattle stolidly grazing alongside the fence in one section.

Christo was on hand last week to talk about “Running Fence.” He was alone; his wife, Jeanne-Claude, had died suddenly last November, ending their artistic collaboration of more than 50 years. Nevertheless, the 74-year-old artist appeared cheerful and full of energy, looking far younger than his years. He talked about the 1976 event as if it had just happened yesterday. For him, the project was not as much about the remembering of the fence as the chance to retell the story of the making of the fence.

It was necessary, he said, to convince the 59 ranchers who owned the land north of San Francisco that would eventually host the fence. He also had to take the project to court for municipal approval, ending in a San Francisco federal appeals court ruling allowing the project to continue. In addition, the couple had to find just the right material for the fence, something that could stand up to the winds of the northern California coastline without disintegrating.

Even with all these hurdles, the project pushed on. It took Christo and Jeanne-Claude from 1972 to 1976 to bring it to fruition.

Like all Christo works, this one lasted for only a brief time. Christo vowed he will “never do the same thing again — I will never do another ‘Running Fence.'” Even so, the artist continues with his next project, “Over the River,” for Colorado’s Arkansas River. In it, fabric panels will be suspended above the river as it winds through the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains.

“Running Fence” is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, at Eighth and F streets Northwest, through Sept. 26. A new film commissioned by the museum, “The ‘Running Fence’ Revisited,” will be shown regularly in the museum’s galleries, along with the 1978 film, “Running Fence.”

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