“Ephemeral Nature”: Aspen Art Exhibition Celebrates Famous “Valley Curtain”

A photo of the Valley Curtain near Rifle taken by Leo Thomas “Teo” Prinster in 1972.
Submitted/Mike Printer

Just by luck, Leo Thomas “Teo” Prinster happened to have a Polaroid camera in his car. It was August 10, 1972. Prinster, son of one of the founding members of the City Market grocery chain in Colorado, was on his way home to Grand Junction after taking photos of potential expansion lots in Steamboat Springs.

Mike Prister, 63, of Aspen, is Leo’s son. He said his father was traveling south on Colorado State Highway 325 when a gigantic curtain appeared at Rifle Gap Reservoir, emitting its now famously distinct, toasty orange hue.

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

“My dad had it blown up and then framed,” Mike Prinster said of his dad’s photo. “We had that in our living room for the longest time as children.”

Aspen’s Hexton Gallery is celebrating the 50th anniversary of when those 18,600 square feet of nylon fabric that make up the orange curtain first connected two ridges in the Grand Hogback Mountain Range, drawing the attention of the likes of Leo Thomas Prinster.

The latest exhibition, Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Ephemeral Nature, officially opened on August 1st and is in collaboration with the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation. It shows works from the private collection of Christo and Jeanne-Claude that have never been shown before.

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

The exhibition also includes Christo’s repertoire of “wrapped objects”, such as a bouquet of flowers that he once wrapped for Jeanne-Claude.

Hexton Gallery represents the estate of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, so “For each project, he was able to choose from Christo’s favorite pieces that he kept for himself,” said Bob Chase, the gallery’s founder. “The Valley Curtain project, celebrating its 50th anniversary and featured in Rifle, was the base we built on. Then we focused on other really important land-based projects that[Christo]did.”

Exactly 17 original Christo works currently furnish the Hexton Gallery, an integral part of Aspen, which originally began near the corner of 78th Street and Madison Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The smallest piece is 22″ x 28″ and the largest is 63″ x 96″.

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

The story behind famed artists Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, who came to Rifle to create something locals like the Prinsters would treasure forever, is as storied as they come.

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

Amid her rise to international fame and her decades-long devotion to instrumenting natural environments and man-made infrastructure to create massive environmental works of art, a notable local Carbondale art collector sparked 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 in love.

“Christo fell in love with him and has come through a few times,” Chase said.

Christo originally envisioned the Valley Curtain for Aspen. But the project, which eventually required 99 builders and helpers to complete, seemed a reasonable fit after Christo stumbled upon Rifle Gap.

“When he saw Rifle Gap, not only did he see the proximity to the freeway, but he also saw restrooms and parking lots at the nearby golf course,” Chase said.

When Mike Prister read about Hexton’s upcoming Christo and Jeanne Claude exhibition, he was inspired to take action. He kept the same Polaroid his father, who died in 2012, took of the Valley Curtain before a hurricane obliterated the curtain in its 28th hour of existence.

Last Thursday Mike brought it to the show. Looking at all the architectural drawings that adorned the exhibit walls, Chase admired and scanned the Polaroid which, like the exhibit itself, had never been seen by the public before.

“He was proud of that photo,” Mike Printerter said of his father. “That’s why I was so excited to see the exhibition – just to revisit the whole thing that happened, that was pretty cool.”

“Over The River” (Project For Arkansas River, Colorado State), 2012; Pencil, charcoal, pastel, wax crayon, paint, aerial photograph with topographical elevation and fabric sample.
Exhibition “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Ephemeral Nature”.
Exhibition “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Ephemeral Nature”.

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