First Drafts: Christo's 'Over the River'

Special Report: How Genius Works Renowned for his epically scaled environmental art, Christo has draped the Reichstag in Berlin and Paris' Pont Neuf in giant swaths of fabric, populated the inland valleys of California and Japan with thousands of umbrellas, and installed a maze of gates in Central Park. These projects have each attracted millions of visitors. Here he shares the sketches and preparatory drawings for "Over the River," an ongoing project developed, like much of his art, with his late wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude.

THE GENESIS OF OVER THE RIVER was in September, 1985. We were wrapping the Pont Neuf with fabric—the bridge, the towers, the walkway, but also the big stone 400-year-old vault. The installation was done by rock climbers, famous French alpinists. All the fabric was lying flat on a barge, then elevated by pulleys. Jeanne-Claude and I were standing on the barge watching the fabric going up and up, and the sun was passing through, and the fabric was floating over the Seine, and that image stayed in our minds.

The proposal [for Over the River] is to suspend a huge banner of fabric way above the water. Most of the great rivers in the United States are born in the Rocky Mountains. It is why in the summers of 1992, '93, and '94, we traveled 15,000 miles investigating 89 rivers in Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and New Mexico. In late 1996, we decided on a 42-mile section of the Arkansas River, in Colorado—for aesthetic reasons, for construction purposes, many reasons.

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College 1992 in 2 parts: 30.5 x 77.5 cm, and 66.7 x 77.5 cm (12 x 30½")
Pencil, fabric, pastel, charcoal and topographic map
Photo: Simon Chaput

ALL OUR PROJECTS are seasonal. The Gates was a winter project, because we wanted leafless trees so you could see the gates. Over the River is for the summer, because we want to have rafters. The Arkansas River is the most rafted river in United States, with 300,000 rafters in the summertime. And it's not like the Colorado River. Our section is very gentle, Category 2 or 3 rapids. You can hire someone to taxi you downriver. So you can experience the project by driving alongside it, or by being inside it, actually rafting, and the fabric would be above you.

All our projects are done with a very close team, including our dear old photographer Wolfgang Volz, who we've worked with for over 40 years. I use his photographs for preparatory studies. This allows me to take the initial pencil and pastel sketches and make bigger drawings and collages. Sometimes I work on top of his photographs with enamel paint and wax crayon.

We're not like architects who build bridges and skyscrapers, the same things again. We'll never build another fence, install another gate, wrap another Parliament. We don't know how the projects will look. For this project, there are many unknowns. The fabric panels will not always be rectangular. The banks of the river are not always the same height. When there's a curve in the river we need trapezoidal panels. Sometimes there are interruptions—a bridge—sometimes the fabric panels need to bend 90 degrees. Sometimes the banks of the river are too low, and you cannot suspend the fabric from cables.

For all our projects we do life-sized tests. I cannot choose the materials, the proportion, the physicality of the project with the drawings alone. This is why work in secret places with our engineers, to clarify our vision. In '97 and '98 and '99, we rented a private ranch near the Utah—Colorado border, where we made many decisions—what kind of fabric we'd use, what color, how tightly woven it should be. We decided to use an industrial polypropylene, with pulverized aluminum. We never thought that the fabric should be porous, but during the test we realized that through the fabric you can see all the clouds and contours of the mountains. It's also important for technical reasons, because in the summer in the Rockies you have afternoon storms. So we poured 10,000 gallons of water on the fabric, to see if the water could go through the fabric. This is how each project starts. It's clumsy, not crystallized.

When we have a site, we find who owns it. There is not one square meter in the world that does not belong to somebody. We soon discovered that 98 percent of the surface of the project is owned by United States Federal Government, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. Through the permitting process, the Clinton administration was very helpful. Then, suddenly, in 2000, we had the Bush administration. We were confronted with a very difficult Secretary of Interior. But of course, some lower officers of the Department of Interior stayed from the Clinton administration and tried to help us.

The Federal Government owns the land, but also leases the land—to oil companies, mining companies, railroads, ranches. One of the most fabulous parts about the Arkansas River is the railroad track of Union Pacific, which has rented the land since the time of Abraham Lincoln. Union Pacific is an extremely conservative company, run like an army, and everyone was saying they will never talk to you. But we had the courage to call them, and with our engineers and lawyers we flew to Omaha for a meeting. And at their headquarters, walking along the corridor to the meeting room, we see 20 posters of our work on the wall—Running Fences, Umbrellas, all these projects. It was miraculous.

To get permission to rent land from the federal government, you do not write letters. You hire a special company to write an application, thousands of pages. It cost us $1.5 million. Finally, after reviewing our application for a long time, in 2008 the government hired their own independent company to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement. We cannot talk to them on the telephone, we cannot invite them for dinner. We can only pay the bills they send to the government. Last July, they published a 1,489-page draft, which by law became public, went on the website, in the post offices and libraries. The government received 4,500 comments from around the world. By mid-June they'll publish a final statement on what the project would affect—the people, the wildlife, the traffic, the commerce. Once the government receives that book, they'll have 60 days to make a record of decision, a ROD. It will come sometime in September.

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Collage 2007 43.2 x 55.9 cm (17 x 22")
Pencil, enamel paint, wax crayon, photograph by Wolfgang Volz, aerial photograph with topographic elevation, fabric sample, and tape
Photo: Andre Grossmann

IF WE GET PERMISSION this year, the earliest we can do the project will be 2014. There is work to be done on-site and off. We need 36 miles of cables and fabrics. But also we need to install 9,000 anchors on site. Steel rods, 21 feet in the ground. The site won't be workable in the winter. We need two years. Most of the work will be physical. There will be some inconvenience to install these anchors. Only in the year of exhibition will we install the cables.

These projects, they're entirely financed by us. We do not accept donations or grants. The money comes from the sale of original works I make with my own hands. I do not have assistants. I work alone in the studio. I even frame the things myself. We do not have a gallery. When we were young we were lucky or unlucky that no one tried to buy these early pieces, so Jeanne-Claude and I found ourselves the biggest collectors of our works. To sell them, our lawyer advised us to set up a corporation. We created it over 40 years ago—CVJ, my initials.

We've already spent 10 million dollars on a project we don't even have permission for. But Jeanne-Claude was always saying, about the cost, that you don't have a budget when growing a child. When the child is sick, you don't call the doctor because it's not in the budget? No. Basically, we try to manage. It's difficult. It's not impossible.

Christo, as told to Alex Hoyt

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Collage 2011 in 2 parts: 30.5 x 77.5 cm and 66.7 x 77.5 cm (12 x 30 ½ " and 26 ¼ x 30 ½ ")
Pencil, fabric, pastel, wax crayon, charcoal, enamel paint, twine, hand-drawn topographic map, and fabric sample
Photo: Andre Grossmann
Christo 8-615px.jpg
Collage 2011 in 2 parts: 30.5 x 77.5 cm and 66.7 x 77.5 cm (12 x 30 ½ " and 26 ¼ x 30 ½ ")
Pencil, fabric, pastel, wax crayon, charcoal, enamel paint, twine, hand-drawn topographic map, fabric sample, and tape
Photo: Andre Grossmann