The first job I had after moving to New York City, in November 1996, was building insanely complicated models for the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
The models were for one of a number of large public art projects, “The Umbrellas,” which the artists had installed five years earlier on two sites: In Japan they had arranged thousands of 19-foot-high blue umbrellas in clusters or lines around a highway and stream. In California they had planted thousands of yellow umbrellas on the hills of Tejon Pass and along Interstate 5, 60 miles north of Los Angeles.
On Oct. 9, 1991, the umbrellas were opened simultaneously and then closed abruptly two and a half weeks later after a windblown umbrella killed a woman in California. A few days later a worker was electrocuted and died while taking down the umbrellas in Japan. Even so, the artists wanted to include the project in several coming exhibitions and hired the architect George Ranalli to build two huge scale models, one of the California site and one of Japan’s. George, a former professor of mine, hired me, along with three other former students — Price Harrison, Mark Dixon and Julie Shurtz — to do the fabrication work.
That first morning in 1996, I eagerly set to work cutting dozens of little umbrellas out of colored paper, folding their edges and gluing them onto pins. They looked terrible and took forever to make. Price and I did this for about a week and then calculated that just making the umbrellas, at the rate we were going, would take about 25 years. And we still needed to build the extremely complicated plywood bases, four for each model, which when placed end to end would represent the sites in their entirety.
We paused on the umbrellas and got to work on the bases, constructing a honeycomb of plywood fins to simulate the hilly topography of Tejon Pass. Just that part took over a month. Then came the news that Christo and Jeanne-Claude were coming in to check on our progress.
I had first seen their work on TV in 1983, when their wrapping of 11 islands in Biscayne Bay with pink fabric made the evening news. I didn’t get it. What was the point? But gradually I began to appreciate their work. I grew to love the haunting inscrutability of their early installations, especially Christo’s mock storefronts that seemed both a celebration of commerce and an elegy to cities lost in a spiral of decay. And now I’d meet them.
I had never seen a photo of Christo or Jeanne-Claude, and I imagined Christo as a tall, heavyset, pushy, hostile guy who was going to come in and order us around. I figured since he was someone who could convince governments to bow to his every artistic whim, he must be pretty intimidating. I was scared.
Jeanne-Claude breezed into our workroom, Christo — that’s Christo? — trailing meekly behind. Jeanne-Claude had long hair dyed fire-hydrant red, wore a floor-length down parka and waved a cigarette around, talking a mile a minute. She carried a metal object that I realized, after seeing her tap ash into it, was an old Band-Aid box repurposed as a combination cigarette case-ashtray. Christo was slightly built, wore an old army jacket and horn-rimmed glasses and had a bemused smile on his face. He politely asked a few questions about the models and seemed satisfied. There was no drama. Both he and Jeanne-Claude were persuasive, but Christo persuaded you gently.
After 15 minutes they said goodbye and good luck, and we got back to work.
Over the next month we ran into problems. We covered the plywood armature with cherry veneer that resembled in color the golden hills of California. To glue it down, we used a vile-smelling contact cement, and had to wear large rubber respirator masks while we worked, which made communication difficult. “Pass me that brush,” I’d say five times, and Price would hand me a Mott the Hoople cassette. The veneer was prone to cracking and the room wasn’t climate-controlled, so I’d nervously watch the weather for signs of fluctuations in humidity. It would rain over the weekend and the humidity would go up, and then it would get dry again and I’d come in on Monday morning to find disastrous fissures running all over the model.
Then weekends went away. I rarely saw my apartment , and even less of New York. I was too busy patching cracks on the hills of California.
Behind schedule, we farmed out the work of making the little umbrellas to an architect with a laser cutter. Then we glued the umbrellas to pins stuck into the base and we were done. Christo and Jeanne-Claude came by and seemed pleased with the result, except that two of the bases bulged embarrassingly in the middle, creating a gap between those sections. Could we close the gap with wood filler, he wondered? No, probably not, we said. He didn’t give us a hard time about it.
The California model had taken three months to complete. The next day we began building Japan. This time we used veneer stained green, to simulate the lush Japanese landscape. Thousands of blue umbrellas arrived from the laser cutter guy. We glued them onto pins, and that was it. It had taken five months to build both models. Christo and Jeanne-Claude came over for one last inspection, said they were happy with the result, thanked George and thanked us.
Over the next few years, the models for “The Umbrellas” were shown in three exhibitions and the artists continued to create fantastical projects that required numerous workers and the cooperation and acquiescence of an untold number of officials and collaborators.
Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, Christo just this past Sunday. I wonder what happened to those two models, so difficult to build and so trivial in a way (umbrellas — really?) but, like the rest of their work, so weirdly worthwhile in the long run. Life is temporary — why not surround islands with fabric or open oversize umbrellas all over a landscape? Did those models of the umbrella project keep cracking until they were eventually thrown out? Or are they doing fine, stored in a climate-controlled unit? Maybe they’re sitting in sections on a shelf somewhere, two miniature worlds representing opposite sides of the Pacific. Perhaps for years the tiny umbrellas have been falling off their pins, one by one, gradually succumbing to time and gravity.
Fran Leadon is an architect and author of “Broadway: A History of New York City in Thirteen Miles.” He is an associate professor at the City College of New York.
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