Christo's controversial art: A timeline of irritating people with fabric

The 75-year-old artist's plans to drape the Arkansas River has Colorado residents up in arms, but it's far from the first time his work has irked locals

Some call Christo's installation art unsafe. Here the artist is pictured with his late wife and partner Jeanne-Claude at the opening of The Gates in New York City.
(Image credit: Getty)

Christo, the Bulgarian artist whose fabric-based art installations have made him world famous, is in trouble yet again. The 75-year-old plans to cover a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in southern Colorado with silvery cloth, a concept he devised with his late wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude over 18 years ago. But local residents don't want a soggy fabric river — and are threatening to clog the area with traffic and even harm wildlife to protest the grand gesture. This isn't the first time Christo's urge to wrap up the world has landed him in hot water. Here's a timeline:

Running Fence (1976)

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's plan to build an 18-foot-high fabric wall through 24 miles of Californian farmland brought them their first taste of controversy. Despite hiring nine lawyers to secure the agreement of 59 separate dairy farmers, landowners, and ranchers, the couple was forced to pay out $60,000 for failing to get the proper permits. Christo, interviewed in The Washington Post, bemoaned the 18 public hearings he endured to gain final approval: "Was I a Soviet spy? Was I a front-runner for real estate developers? There was a fear that the project would attract many foreigners and they would start building houses."

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Surrounded Islands (1983)

Raising Christo's profile dramatically, this three-year project produced one of the most iconic images of 1980s art: 11 islands in Biscayne Bay, Miami, each surrounded by a "skirt" of pink. At the time, however, the prospect of floating thousands of pink polypropylene sheets in the Miami waters left environmental groups aghast. A lengthy and costly legal battle with local wildlife groups was resolved in federal court only after "endless and nerve-racking negotiations," says photographer Wolfgang Volz in the book Nomads for Art.

The Umbrellas (1991)

The impact of the Christos' Umbrellas project, staged in both Japan and in California, was overshadowed by a pair of fatal accidents. In the U.S, the artists erected 1,760 yellow umbrellas, each more than 19-foot high, over 18 miles of Californian farmland but — shortly into the installation's three-week exhibition schedule — a woman was killed after a gust of wind upended one of the 448 lb. aluminum-frame umbrellas, crushing her against a rock. Though Christo and Jeanne-Claude ordered all 3,100 umbrellas to be dismantled in Japan and the U.S., a Japanese contractor was fatally electrocuted during the process.

Wrapped Reichstag (1995)

The artists had been invited to wrap the German parliament building in fabric by the president of the Bundestag in 1991, but it took a two-year "lobbying marathon" to gain political support. The opposition, led by then Chancellor Helmut Kohl, said encasing the historic building would be a "mockery of Germany's democratic traditions." A dramatic parliamentary vote followed, in which 223 voted no and 292 voted yes.

The Gates (2005)

The artists battled with angry locals, community leaders, environmental protesters, and park officials for a total of 26 years before being allowed to create their first and only large-scale New York City installation. The pair made 41 formal presentations in 1980 alone, reported Adam Sternbergh in New York. The original plan called for 15,000 fabric-draped steel gates to be planted in the soil of Central Park; in the end, only 7,500 free-standing vinyl gates were approved. New York's hard-to-please art critics weren't impressed. The gates belong "on a slalom course," sniffed Dianne L. Durante at her Forgotten Delights blog. "What message will The Gates convey? None at all."

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