‘Ephemeral Nature’: Aspen art exhibit celebrates famous ‘Valley Curtain’

Photo Leo Thomas “Teo” Prinster took in 1973 of the 'Valley Curtain.'
Leo Thomas “Teo” Prinster

Solely by luck did Leo Thomas “Teo” Prinster happen to have a Polaroid camera sitting in his car. It was Aug. 10, 1972. Prinster, son of one of the founding members of Colorado grocery chain City Market, was on his way back home to Grand Junction after snapping photos of potential expansion properties in Steamboat Springs.

Aspen resident Mike Prinster, 63, is Leo’s son. He said his father was traveling south on Colorado State Highway 325 when, at Rifle Gap Reservoir, out emerged a gargantuan curtain radiating its now famously distinct toasty-orange hue. 

The homegrown Colorado grocer was intrigued immediately. He pulled over, took out his Polaroid camera and photographed what turned out to be one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s most epic creations of environmental artwork: the Valley Curtain.

“My dad had it blown up, and then had it framed,” Mike Prinster said about his father’s photo. “We had that in our living room for the longest time when growing up when we were kids.” 

Aspen’s Hexton Gallery is celebrating the 50th anniversary of when these 18,600 square meters of nylon fabric making up the orange curtain first connected two ridges in the Grand Hogback Mountain Range and caught the attention of people like Leo Thomas Prinster.

The newest “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Ephemeral Nature” exhibit officially opened Aug. 1 and is in collaboration with the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation. It features the never-before-seen works from Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s private collection.

The curated unveiling consists of Christo drawings and collages representative of the duo’s most iconic projects: “The Gates” of Central Park, the “Surrounded Islands” of Miami and the “Valley Curtain” of Rifle, Colorado.

The exhibit also includes Christo’s repertoire of “Wrapped Objects,” like a bouquet of flowers he once wrapped for Jeanne-Claude.

Hexton Gallery represents the Christo and Jeanne-Claude estate, and, as a result, “could pick from Christo’s favorite pieces that he kept for himself for each project,” Bob Chase, the gallery’s founder, said. “The Valley Curtain project, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary and was staged in Rifle, was the base from which we built upon. Then we focused on other really important land-based projects that (Christo) did.”

Exactly 17 original Christo works currently furnish Hexton Gallery, an Aspen staple that originally got its start near the corner of 78th Street and Madison Avenue in Upper West Side Manhattan. The smallest piece is 22-x-28 inches, and the largest, 63-x-96 inches.

“They’ve never seen the light of day,” Chase said. “Drawings that were made 50 years ago look like they came off (Christo’s) easel within 20 hours.”

The story behind famous artists Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon coming to Rifle to create something Colorado locals like the Prinsters would forever cherish is as storied as they come.

Christo was born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria on June 13, 1935. Jeanne-Claude was also born June 13, 1935, but in Casablanca, French Morocco. Christo successfully slipped away from underneath the Iron Curtain and, in 1958, met Jeanne-Claude in Paris.

Amid their ascension to international stardom and decades’ long dedication to instrumenting natural settings and manmade infrastructure to create vast pieces of environmental art, a notable local Carbondale art collector is what ignited Christo’s interest in Colorado’s High Country.

Christo already had many patrons in Colorado, Chase said. One of them happened to be John G. Powers. (Carbondale’s Powers Art Center is dedicated in his honor.)

Powers once took Christo to Aspen and, from there, Christo was enamored.

“Christo fell in love with it and came through a number of times,” Chase said. 

Christo had originally envisioned the Valley Curtain for Aspen. But the project, eventually requiring 99 construction workers and helpers to erect, seemed a rational fit after Christo came across Rifle Gap.

“When he saw Rifle Gap, he saw not only close proximity to the highway but also bathrooms and parking at the golf course that was nearby,” Chase said.

When Mike Prinster read about Hexton’s upcoming Christo and Jeanne-Claude exhibit, he was inspired to do something. He kept that same Polaroid his father, who passed away in 2012, took of the Valley Curtain before a gale storm wiped the curtain out in its 28th hour of existence.

Last Thursday, Mike brought it to the exhibit. As he viewed all the architectural drawings adorned on the exhibit walls, Chase admired and scanned the Polaroid, which, like the exhibit itself, had never been seen before by the general public.

“He was proud of that photo,” Mike Prinster said of his father. “That’s why I was excited to see the exhibit — just to reintroduce that whole thing that happened, that was pretty cool.”

If you go…

What: ‘Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Ephemeral Nature’ exhibit
Where: Hexton Gallery, 447 E. Cooper Ave.
When: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

‘Over The River’ (project For Arkansas River, State of Colorado), 2012; pencil, charcoal, pastel, wax crayon, enamel paint, aerial photograph with topographic elevation and fabric sample.
Courtesy Hexton Gallery
‘Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Ephemeral Nature’ exhibition.
Courtesy Hexton Gallery
‘Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Ephemeral Nature’ exhibition.
Courtesy Hexton Gallery