Christo: Wrapped Walkways 1978

(originally published 6/4/20)

The artist Christo passed away last weekend. Many of us 50+ers will remember Christo’s connection to Kansas City – two weeks in October 1978, when the pathways in Loose Park were wrapped in gold. An improbably amazing event by an artist who was then only about 20 years into his 62 year career. But this is not a Christo bio cum obit. The reason I had already planned this piece for this summer was that I wanted to know more about the how and why of it all. And as usual, while finding those answers in the research, I came upon even more.

But first things first…

Jeanne-Claude and Christo in studio, New York, 1976, two years before the Kansas City project. Image courtesy artist’s website.

Knowing something of Christo’s body of work gives context to the Loose Park project. His portfolio begins in 1958, the same year he married Jeanne-Claude, with whom he collaborated on every project since at least 1963. He was Bulgarian, but he escaped Communism and fled to Austria when he was 20. Jeanne-Claude was French, but born in Casablanca when her family was stationed there. The artists met in Paris, but spent most of their careers in New York. They led international lives, and created international art. Over the course of their joint career, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped Italian fountains, a Germany art gallery, and the entire Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. They wrapped monuments in Milan, walls in Rome, and in Newport, Rhode Island, they wrapped the beach and the ocean. Their art was impermanent, lasting anywhere from 8 hours to two months. Fabric was the medium of choice from the beginning, and Christo often used the term “wrapped” in the title of his pieces.

“Running Fence,” Sonoma & Marin Counties, CA, 1972. Image from author’s website.

In 1977, Christo was well known within the art world, but was not quite yet a household name in America. His most notable work was a 1972 piece. Running Fence was a 24.5-mile fence of white nylon supported by posts and cables that ran across the hills of Sonoma and Marin counties in California, until finally it crossed the coastline and ended in the sea. But it was another piece, Valley Curtain that first brought Christo to Kansas City. Valley Curtain, 200,000 square feet of orange nylon, was strung between two mountains, hanging over a highway near Rifle, Colorado. That was 1972, and owing to a sudden wind, the curtain hung for all of 28 hours. Later that year, a Kansas City gallery held a showing of photos of Valley Curtain. Christo came to the opening of that showing, his first trip to Kansas City. A connection was made.

Fast forward five years, and the Contemporary Art Society (CAS), a new membership subgroup of the (then named) Nelson Gallery of Art was looking for a unique inaugural event. The Nelson Gallery’s reputation in contemporary art had been strong in the 1960s, but was thought to be fading, and the Society wanted to reverse that. CAS approached Christo, and discussions began in earnest in September 1977.

But where to put Christo’s signature brand of over-sized art? The city had two suggestions – the Missouri River, and Loose Park. Christo’s past work had given him the idea of wrapping a pathway, and he’d been looking for the right spot. And as he said many times, he had never had an installation in such a busy place, such a public space. So Loose Park it was. His proposal illustrated a vision of the walkways just as they would be realized, a project timeline of a year (a short time-frame for a Christo project), and a public viewing of two weeks in October 1978.

The concept of wrapping a sidewalk may seem simple, but the numbers prove the extent of Christo’s undertaking.

The schedule anticipated that public resistance might delay things. Past experience had taught him to anticipate that time, and plan accordingly. But Kansas City was different than other places Christo had worked in one fundamental way. There was no long convoluted permitting process for this type of project. The Board of Parks & Recreation has complete autonomy over how the parks are used. Citizens could appear before the board with objections, but in all the meetings held before the final agreement was reached in April, more people showed up to support the idea than oppose it. Individuals could – and did – have their letters to the Star’s editor published, but rather than offering persuasive arguments like the disruption to the neighborhood or presenting a safety hazard, most of the letters landed on one of two softer points – the project was a scam or folly, or a sinful waste of resources.

As newspapers often do, the Star’s reporting continually mentioned the “controversy” surrounding the project, even when the only controversy rose from the letters to the editor the paper published. But say something often enough and it becomes truth, and the walkways project became the subject of a broader, but still ineffectual debate. The Star itself added to the confusion by contradicting its own stories – sometimes stories in the same edition. It repeatedly reinforced or failed to correct two pieces of bad information – that Christo had come to Kansas City of his own volition just to sell his project, and that he’d convinced the City, or the Nelson, or both to pay for the work. None of that was true. The invitation came from the Contemporary Art Society. Aside from the usual practice of underwriting travel expenses for a trip made at the organization’s invitation dating prior to any formal agreement, the executed contract explicitly stated that all project expenses were the responsibility of the Christo team.

A sample of the slick and shiny saffron nylon used to wrap the sidewalks was included in the book, Christo: Wrapped Walkways, a commemorative book on the event.

Even so, some nerves were rattling in City Hall at the thought of angry citizens flooding city meetings. And while only a few complaints ever arrived, the city felt the need to pass a resolution that formally disassociated it from the project, an act both spineless and pointless. The park board, by charter, is its own entity, so the city had no authority in the matter. The only group that might have had some authority was the Municipal Arts Commission, but because this was to be a temporary piece, the Parks Department rightly defined it as an event in their application, and avoided need for MAC’s approval.

The only legitimate concerns were raised by the Park Board, all about safety and security. Would the wrapped walkways present trip hazards? Would someone be responsible for repairs? How would the property be patrolled for security? To answer the first concern, Christo installed fabric on a small stretch of sidewalk in the park. Seeing it and walking on it themselves, the board members concerns were allayed. That same month, April 1978, the Park Board approved the project, CAS entered into an agreement with Christo, and the project that Christo and his team had already been working on for the last six months was finally given the green light.

One group of installation workers hammering the spikes into the fabric’s grommets, securing it to the ground. Image from project book.

The other two questions about repairs and safety may have come from Frank Vaydik, the director of the parks department. His years of experience would have told him that projects like this are usually long on promise and short on delivery. He was neutral on the question of art/not art, but was determined not to use valuable department resources for the maintenance or security of the piece, nor for the inevitable damage left behind. But at the end of the project, Vaydik allowed that he had never seen a team so well prepared and so efficient as Christo’s.

By 1978, Christo had cultivated an impressive team. He typically worked with three engineers, each taking the lead in the design process, project management or project construction. He always included a local contractor, this time A.L. “Augie” Huber. Christo probably didn’t tell anyone in Kansas City how far the project had progressed, even before it had begun. Most of the design time was spent just working out what was effectively a pattern for every inch of the pathways. The asphalt, cement and gravel paths, all different sizes. The twists, turns, bends and circles in the pathways, all measured to a custom fit.

Ruby (center) was one of four professional seamstresses hired for the project. The heavy duty machines were put on wheels so that could be moved around the park as needed. Image from project book.

Then production began. Whole factories were involved. The specially designed saffron nylon came from a factory in Putnam, Connecticut. Once finished, the raw yardage was sewn to specification in West Virginia. Two kinds of spikes to hold the fabric into the ground, each for its own soil type were custom made. Workers had to be hired – installers, security guards, monitors for repairs, even professional seamstresses for piecing the long stretches together, and for on-site modifications.

Everything went as planned. It took two days to wrap the walkways. The grand opening was October 4, 1978, but the park had been open to the public during the two days of installation, so people had already experienced the walkways before opening day. For two weeks, Kansas City was the center of attention in the art world, and Loose Park was the center of attention in town. By the time Wrapped Walkways was over, the project had many converts, and the whole experience was hailed as a success.

(l) The duck pond bridge was a popular viewing spot. On a busy day during the two weeks of the project, people had to wait in line to cross it. (r) Christo liked the contrast between the park’s formal areas, like the Rose Garden (top) and the informal areas like the winding path around the duck pond (bottom), and how those contrasts gave a different look to the walkways. Images from project book.

I saw it in person, and I lived in midtown then so I saw it often. The gold walkways were streams leading through the morning fog around the pond. They caught the early autumn colors in the bright light of day, and reflected back the sunset and the glow of streetlights in the evening. Some years ago, I was delighted to find a copy of the commemorative book for the project in Prospero’s Book Store. Christo: Wrapped Walkways is the source of much of what I’ve shared here. Which, it turns out, is what Christo intended all along.

That’s what I learned forty plus years later. Christo intended that the books he published for each project to be as much a part of his art as the instillation itself. In true artist fashion, Christo could only articulate his work from his own perspective, and his perspective was his experience of the project from concept to conclusion. For him, the finished art was inseparable from the effort. So, in the spirit of Da Vinci, I suppose, he preserved letters, photos, sketches, calculations and contracts of each project, and put them in a book. Further, he saw every event of the process, including the meeting he attended, the hurdles he encountered, the public discourse, the eventual response by the community, the very setting of the piece, all a part of the art. So the documentaries, the photo prints, the working sketches, and other pieces that he sold both bankrolled his art and deepened the experience for public.

That’s exactly what happened when I read the book and did the research. And it’s what I hope has happened here with this post for you.

(Featured Photo: A detail of one of the wrapped walkways as featured on the cover of Christo: Wrapped Walkways, published to help support the project.)

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