Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Running Fence (1972–76) was a temporary environmental artwork that was situated in Northern California and designed in the shape of a fence that extended 24 miles through the undulating landscape of Marin and Sonoma counties. I worked on the project as an associate project director. At the time, I lived in a Motel 6 in Petaluma, rising every morning well before dawn, around 3:30 a.m., to drive Jeanne-Claude and Christo to visit farmers before they milked their cows. The aim was to convince landowners to sign contracts allowing access to their land so that an art project could exist for two weeks. Were it not for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s smiles, obsessive personalities, and irresistible senses of humor, none of those deals would’ve been possible, and we wouldn’t have had Running Fence.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude worked as a team, and despite the project’s ambitions, the slightest possibility that Running Fence might not happen never occurred to them. They burrowed beneath obstructions, overturned impasses, and coaxed difficulties into advantages. After working on Running Fence for nearly four years, I eventually mirrored their determination and adopted their contagious sense of tenacity.
And they certainly needed to be that persistent. Realizing Running Fence required the use of property from 59 landowners, the completion of 17 public hearings, the creation of an environmental impact report, the employment of three legal firms, and the planting of 2,050 poles 62 feet apart, each of them embedded 3 feet into the ground, with 165,000 yards of fire-resistant nylon fabric suspended from them. In other words, the shape of Running Fence had to ultimately be determined by permissions granted by the California legal system. Even though they commissioned an environmental impact report citing the safety of the work, Christo and his legal advisers were at one point told they couldn’t realize one aspect of the project—a portion that was meant to run into the Pacific Ocean.
Being denied the opportunity to execute the work as intended only made Christo and Jeanne-Claude more fervent in insisting that Running Fence would not be complete until it disappeared into the water. And up until the very end, it seemed questionable whether the artists would be able to see their vision for the project come to fruition.
The artists were aware that the legal sanctions that would allow the fence to go into the water had not arrived on September 10, 1976, when the fabric was set to be unfolded. That morning, an odd mixture of farmers, ecologists, engineers, international patrons, and members of the press waited on the golden hills of Northern California while the project’s workers met on the cliffs of Bodega Bay. As we looked out over the Sonoma hills, we could see a brilliant violet sunrise that would act as the backdrop for the unveiling.
“PULL!” Christo shouted. The crew obeyed. Cords gave way, unfurling the fence with a dazzling thrust. Its white fabric floated toward the ocean, then disappeared into the ultramarine expanse of water.
As it turned out, Jeanne-Claude and Christo had found their loophole. At the very last moment, they chose to honor the freedom of their vision, despite existing legal strictures, by paying a small fine to the county.
I worked in the office for the two weeks while Running Fence remained on view. (Meanwhile, Jeanne-Claude operated the secret decoy unit—something she learned from her father, who was a general in the French army, so that no one would interrupt her work.) On the very last day the work was up, I took a helicopter ride over the landscape. Only from that distance could I see its entire expanse. It was breathtaking.
As human beings, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were spirited, political, and profoundly kind individuals, passionately committed to the importance of art, which they believed would enhance the value of life. I think often of the way that Christo and Jeanne-Claude knew they were technically doing something illegal with the Pacific Ocean part of Running Fence and forged ahead. In his essay “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau reminds us that “willingly breaking a law that is unjust and paying the penalty arouses the conscience of a community.” Christo and Jeanne-Claude knew as much, and continued doing it throughout their careers.
Lynn Hershman Leeson is a San Francisco–based artist. A solo exhibition of her work will open at New York’s New Museum later this year.