Christo in his studio with a preparatory collage for "Over The River," 2011 (photo by Wolfgang Volz, © 2011 Christo)

Christo in his studio with a preparatory collage for “Over The River,” 2011 (photo by Wolfgang Volz, © 2011 Christo)

Yesterday, the artist Christo announced that he was abandoning a project that he and the late Jeanne-Claude, his artistic collaborator and wife who died in 2009, conceived 25 years ago. “Over the River” was to involve the temporary suspension of a silvery fabric along a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas river in south-central Colorado on land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. It had been met with sustained opposition from locals who contended that it would have a severe environmental impact on the local landscape and wildlife, spurring a seemingly endless series of lawsuits and delays.

Christo, “Over The River (Project for Arkansas River, State of Colorado)” (2010), pencil, pastel, charcoal, and wax crayon, 13 7/8 x 15 1/4 in (photo by André Grossmann, © 2010 Christo)

In the announcement on the “Over the River” website, Christo explained that he had grown tired of waiting for the project to be approved and wanted to focus on another project, “The Mastaba,” which he and Jeanne-Claude first conceived in 1977 and, if completed near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates as planned, would be the largest sculpture in the world. Twenty-five years is a long time to fight for a project. This seemed like a perfectly reasonable explanation.

However, in a New York Times article published shortly after the statement was released and titled “Christo, Trump and the Art World’s Biggest Protest Yet,” the artist gave a very different and much more poignant reason for abandoning the project. “My decision process was that, like many others, I never believed that Trump would be elected,” he told the Times‘s Randy Kennedy. “I use my own money and my own work and my own plans because I like to be totally free. And here now, the federal government is our landlord. They own the land. I can’t do a project that benefits this landlord.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude during the life-size test for “Over The River,” summer 1999 (photo by Wolfgang Volz, © 1999 Christo)

Christo’s claim of maintaining total freedom by using his own money to fund his projects — he estimates he’s spent $15 million on “Over the River” — falls firmly in the tradition of Trump’s “alternative facts,” as was most clearly illustrated last summer, when his and Jeanne-Claude’s “Floating Piers” project was executed with the support of a weapons manufacturer. The Beretta family provided logistical assistance for the project and their private island, San Paolo, was the final destination of the floating, golden piers. And while Christo is no longer pursuing the temporary “Over the River” project on federal land that now falls under President Trump’s control, he is focusing on what, if realized, would be his and Jeanne-Claude’s only permanent public artwork. The towering sculpture, to be realized on land owned by Abu Dhabi’s royal family with the help of Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (the younger brother of the emirate’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan), would be located in a nation with a very poor human rights record on issues ranging from freedom of expression to the treatment of women, LGBT individuals, migrant workers, and dissenters of any and every stripe.

Despite Christo’s checkered record of working with families, companies, or governments that might compromise the integrity of his and Jeanne-Claude’s projects, Times reporter Randy Kennedy swallows the Trump angle hook, line, and sinker. He calls Christo’s decision “by far the most visible — and costly — protest of the new administration from within the art world,” downplaying the widespread support for (and participation in) Friday’s #J20 art strike while grossly overestimating the symbolic power of an artist abandoning a project he’d been struggling to execute for over two decades..

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...