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Posted at 8:50 AM ET, 10/ 7/2008

'Over the River' But Not Out of the Woods

By Stephanie Merry

Christo, left, and Jean-Claude talk about their latest project. (By Lavanya Ramanathan)

The latest exhibition to hit the Phillips Collection isn't about artistic output so much as painstaking creative process and bureaucratic hurdles yet to be overcome. "Over the River, A Work in Progress" documents the creation of the next work by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the entertainingly eccentric husband-wife duo responsible for blanketing Central Park with saffron-colored fabric gates in 2005, among other works.

"We have never created a work of joy and beauty -- and we have created 19 of them -- that didn't get opposition before," says Jeanne-Claude, the flame-haired half of the artistic pair, who visited the Phillips on Monday to guide a tour of their own exhibition, which opens Saturday. "Afterward," she says, "it's hard to find someone to admit they don't like it."

Another work of fabric, "Over the River" will be a swath of burlap-like polypropylene stretched across portions of a 40-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in Colorado, viewable from above (by road) or below (by raft). The drawings, maps, fabric swatches and photos documenting the work so far make up the display at the Phillips.

But this isn't just any fabric. Though it looks silvery when on display at the Phillips, the couple hopes the textile, created from "vaporized aluminum," will act like a mirror once it is in place. The goal is for the fabric to change color depending on the landscape, while still being sheer enough for rafters to be able to see the sky above. The material also allows water to pass through it, so should it storm, those below will still feel the rain.

Though the artists don't expect to exhibit the work until the summer of 2012 -- and even then, it will, like "The Gates," be installed for only two weeks -- the preparations for the project (which began in 1992) have been immense.

The artifacts from "Over the River" provide a view of the creative process, which isn't as glamorous or free-spirited as some might assume. Over the past 16 years, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have driven 14,000 miles to examine 89 rivers as potential sites; they have dealt with bureaucrats to secure use of the land; they have consulted with geologists to consider what anchors are needed to support the fabric. The amount of work that has gone into the creation of "Over the River" is itself worthy of examination.

The large-scale drawings in the show might look similar, but each offers a different view of the river based on photos from the site. That's because each of the 900 panels that will be used is different, cut for its specific section of the river. Aerial photos pinpoint exactly which view you're seeing.

How much time did the couple spend at the site, taking in each segment? "Do you know how much we walked it?" Jeanne-Claude asks. "Four pairs of shoes."

Though both are now 73, the artists give no indication of giving up on their projects, even though, as with "The Gates" or "Over the River," they might take upwards of 20 years to realize.

"Artists do not retire," says Jeanne-Claude. "They die."

--Lavanya Ramanathan and Stephanie Merry

By Stephanie Merry  | October 7, 2008; 8:50 AM ET
Categories:  Museums  
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Comments

While it always sounds so crazy when they describe it, the end result is always so fascinating. I'm routing for it!

Posted by: love those two | October 7, 2008 3:57 PM | Report abuse

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