Why Christo Cancelled an Epic Public Artwork

The artist’s decision to abandon his expansive Arkansas River project is the latest, biggest creative protest against Trump.

The artist Christo, with drawings for his project, "Over the River," as seen in Denver in 2013. (Brennan Linsley/AP)

Christo, the artist famous for wrapping the Reichstag, erecting orange gates in Central Park, and running miles of fabric fence through Sonoma County ranch-land, has thrown in the towel. He told the New York Times this week that he is abandoning Over the River, his plan to drape a canopy over 6 miles of Colorado’s Arkansas River, as a protest against President Donald Trump.

“I use my own money and my own work and my own plans because I like to be totally free,” Christo told the Times. “And here now, the federal government is our landlord. They own the land. I can’t do a project that benefits this landlord.”

Rags Over the Arkansas River sounded a prompt triumphant note. The organization, which exists exclusively to oppose the artwork planned by Christo and his late-partner, Jeanne-Claude, declared their 18-year mission accomplished. The end of Over the River means the end of the road for Christo and Jeanne-Claude, at least in the U.S.: It was the couple’s last work planned here, their final collaboration in a career of public, socially engaged artworks stretching back 50 years.

Christo’s decision to renege on this final work is the most dramatic example yet of an artist action against President Trump. Earlier this month, the mercurial photographer Richard Prince disavowed a portrait he made of Ivanka Trump (based on a selfie from the First Daughter’s own Instagram account), claiming that he had returned the $36,000 he received from Trump for the piece. Dozens of artists, curators, and cultural workers joined a strike on January 20, the day of President Trump’s inauguration.

Christo’s strike may stand alone, however, as an example of an action that truly redacts an artwork from the world, not just notionally. Over the River was a work in progress: One federal lawsuit remained in the way of the artist’s plan to suspend 1,000 silvery fabric panels in stretches over a 42-mile span of the Arkansas River. The work had overcome several obstacles, most recently in January 2015, when a federal district court upheld a U.S. Bureau of Land Management decision to allow the project to proceed.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, pictured with a drawing for Over the River in Germany in 2006. (Thomas Haentzschel/AP)

In the divisive world of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the civic debates were always the locus of their art. Running Fence, a 1978 film by Albert and David Maysles—documentarians who chronicled the artists’ works—showcases the many community hearings that served as the pair’s secret medium. The film showed the absurd lengths to which the artists went to persuade skeptical (and sometimes hostile) California ranchers to let them hang 24.5 miles of white nylon fabric in an undulating line drawn inland from the Pacific Ocean. Christo and Jeanne-Claude spent 4 years convincing the ranchers why they should bother; the final consummation of the project, Running Fence, ran its course for just two weeks in 1976.

Over the River was grander in its ambition. The piece, conceived in 1992, required significant buy-in from the U.S. Department of the Interior. As part of the approvals process, Christo and Jeanne-Claude produced in 2011 a 1,686-page Environmental Impact Statement, a preparatory document usually reserved for large-scale infrastructural projects. The Sierra Club condemned the artists’ plans; the Phillips Collection, a museum in Washington, D.C.,  exhibited the draft federal document.

By withdrawing from Over the River, Christo has done more than cancel an ongoing project. He has walked away from the fight that made the artists’ work so compelling. For nearly half a century, he and Jeanne-Claude generated hundreds if not thousands of hours of community hearings, op-ed arguments, and public harangues over the meaning of art. The pair identified public debate as vital to art—much more so than the installations themselves, which were always rendered in industrial materials and never lasted much longer than a fortnight. The purpose of The Gates was not to festoon Central Park with thousands of orange curtains, but to force the government of New York City to talk about art for more than 25 years. The permitting debate over The Gates, which were raised to great fanfare for a few weeks in February 2005, started way back in 1979, under Ed Koch’s administration.

Christo’s Over the River protest, then, comes as a decisive statement. After spending most of his life arguing with people, trying to convince ordinary citizens of the virtue of submitting their consent and their property to the absurd, the artist is saying that the other side cannot be reached. Christo and Jeanne-Claude often fought in vain against NIMBYism, but sometimes, they broke through in epic fashion, reaching across the aisle, in a sense, and finding common ground. Christo is far from the first artist to say that common ground no longer exists, but with Jeanne-Claude, he spent a lifetime proving otherwise.