Revisiting ‘Valley Curtain,’ the massive art installation that went up 50 years ago near Rifle
Summervail 2022 and Vail Symposium celebrate art installation of Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Imagine driving along the highway in August of 1972 and seeing 4.5 acres of fabric strung across the valley from peak to peak. The orange material created a contrast between the blue skies above and the landscape below and was an odd sight for drivers.
That was the scene created 50 years ago by “Valley Curtain” (1970-1972) on Highway 325 north of Rifle, Colorado, but not for long. Wind ultimately caused the art installation to be taken down from the Grand Hogback Mountain Range. The endeavor was one of the first large-scale projects done by the late husband and wife artist team Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The duo fascinated an entire generation and beyond with their larger-than-life works of art around the world. Their legacy will be the topic of the Summervail Art Workshop Legacy Project and Vail Symposium’s event Thursday at 6 p.m. at Vail Mountain School.
“In 1971, the plan was to hoist the fabric up to the cable that would span the width of the valley but as soon as they started lifting the fabric up higher the wind caught it and started pushing it around. Part of the fabric went into the creek and got wet, so it became heavy and it was blown into the rocks, which then cut the fabric,” explained Dan Telleen, a local artist and owner of Karats Jewelers in Vail Village.
Some members of the Summervail Art Workshop went on a field trip to check out the installation the first year, but Telleen went the following year to see the next attempt to get the curtain up.
“I went over because I thought it was sort of a harebrained, goofy idea that wasn’t my definition of art at the time. But as it turns out, it changed my mind and my whole attitude of what I thought art could be. It emphasized more of the thought behind the art,” Telleen said.
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For the second attempt in 1972, Christo and Jeanne-Claude hired a new contractor and decided that the fabric would be suspended and then released down to the bottom. They were unfurling the fabric and it got stuck and it caused another delay for a day. Many of the workers who had signed up to help had to return to jobs, school or other obligations, so Telleen and about a dozen Summervail Art Workshop students stuck around to help out the next day.
“Tugging on it didn’t work, but then the wind came up and caught it and had so much strength that it tore the curtain loose and it roared down, which was what was supposed to happen,” Telleen said.
But the wind wasn’t a friend for long — 28 hours later, gale force winds as high as 60 miles per hour forced the removal of the art installation.
Those 28 hours and the 28 months leading up to it left a ripple effect in not only Telleen’s mind but the Rifle community and the government officials, construction workers, highway department officials, helpers and students who were a part of it.
“The impact isn’t just left on the people but also that place where it was because the art installations are so site-specific and they become part of the history of the location. It becomes part of the cultural landscape for another generation or two and counting,” said Jonathan Henery, Jeanne-Claude’s nephew who was involved in the daily workings of Christo and Jeanne-Claude and now manages the couples’ studio and home in New York City and runs The Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation. Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009 and Christo in 2020.
Other famous locations where Christo and Jeanne-Claude completed large-scale projects around the world include:
“Wall of Oil Barrels – The Iron Curtain” Paris, 1961-62
“Running Fence,” Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76
“Surrounded Islands,” Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83
“Wrapped Reichstag,” Berlin, 1971-95
“L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped,” Paris, 1961-2021
One project that never was realized was called “Over the River.” In 1992, Christo and Jeanne-Claude scouted 96 rivers throughout the Western U.S. between New Mexico and Idaho and narrowed it down to six rivers and chose a section of the Arkansas River in Colorado in 1996.
“Despite providing a full Environmental Impact Statement and permits granted by the federal government and the Colorado Department of Parks and Recreation in 2011, there were lawsuits and challenges. Christo eventually canceled the project in 2017,” Henery said.
“It lives on in the hearts of the team since we worked on it for decades and we really got to know the people involved and loved Colorado and the possibility of a project here since I was only a small child and Vladimir wasn’t even born yet,” Henery said about the age he was when “Valley Curtain” was installed.
Vladimir Yavachev is another nephew who worked alongside Christo from the age of 15 and helped bring his uncle’s work to life. After Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s deaths, he constructed Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s unfinished work “L’Arc De Triomphe” in Paris.
Henery, Yavachev and Telleen will be part of an international panel on Thursday night. They will be joined by David Yust, a retired professor from Colorado State University and world-renowned artist who was a friend and colleague of Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Wolfgang Volz, who was the assistant photographer of the “Valley Curtain” project in 1971 and was the lead photographer for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects. Volz will be calling in from Stockholm, Sweden.
Moderating the event will be James Baker, an artist, writer and former director of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village near Aspen. He met Christo and Jeanne-Claude through connections in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“As an art educator, their process of making their pieces on such a large scale was fascinating. But their planning was equally impressive. The negotiating, learning what the community needs were, the whole process which sometimes took decades and moving on when it didn’t work, that part fascinated me,” Baker said.
Learn how the “Valley Curtain” has had a ripple effect on the arts in the Vail Valley and see what Henery and Yavachev plan to do to carry out more of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s legacy with projects like “The Mastaba” in the United Arab Emirates. For tickets and more information on the event go to VailSymposium.org. To learn more about the Summervail Art Workshop Legacy Project go to SVAW.org.