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Since 1961, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been developing a business model for art that sounds a bit like a hippie fantasy. The 73-year-old artists, married for more than four decades, act as their own art dealers; they work in the same studio in New York City that they’ve occupied since 1964; and they accept no royalties on books or films related to their art. The couple designs huge temporary projects that exist not in galleries or museums but in outdoor public spaces and which typically last for about two weeks each. As Christo explained in a 1983 interview, “The great power of the project is that it’s absolutely irrational. And that disturbs, angers the sound human perception of a capitalist society…to realize the work is beyond everything we can count in money and everyone will understand that the money counts for nothing.”

Over the River: A Work in Progress,” a show of some 200 images and objects currently on view at the Phillips Collection, chronicles the development of the couple’s latest project, a piece that may be green-lighted as early as the summer of 2012—or, possibly, never. The exhibition showcases a mix of drawings, documentary photographs, and prototypes of project hardware. It also nicely illustrates how Christo and Jeanne-Claude proceed from vague notions sketched in graphite to town meetings in high schools—filled with PTA members, dour-looking men in camouflage, and bureaucrats—to field tests with engineers, cables, and fabric samples. The show bogs down in places—so many nearly identical drawings, so many photos of meeting and scouting—but it’s nice to have a show of living artists at the Phillips again.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude plan to suspend nearly six miles of silver fabric over the Arkansas River in Colorado. For them, this is business as usual. In 1976, the couple erected an 18-foot-high, 24-mile-long fence through California’s Sonoma and Marin counties. In 1983, they floated giant pink polypropylene skirts around 11 man-made islands in Biscayne Bay, near Miami. In 1995, they wrapped Berlin’s Reichstag with nearly 120,000 square yards of silvery fabric, to the delight—or bafflement—of more than 5 million visitors over 14 days.

Over the years, as each successive piece has expanded in complexity and expense, the pair has become increasingly dependent on a crew of engineers, legal advisors, and environmental specialists, all of whom get a paycheck. In the case of their last completed project, The Gates, fabricating, installing, and dismantling the billowing saffron banners that curled around 23 miles of New York’s Central Park required, according to the artists, $21 million (though some dispute the figure).

Incredibly, the artists bankroll all their interventions themselves. In fact, it’s difficult to think of anyone who has come closer to realizing the old Modernist dream of full artistic autonomy, one that nearly the entire contemporary art world seems to have abandoned. Today, Damien Hirst is hailed as a radical simply for using an auction house instead of a dealer. Surely Christo and Jeanne-Claude have pulled off the more impressive trick.

Yet they are hardly daydreaming Marxists. Bulgarian-born Christo was trained to be a good socialist, but, as he said back in 1983, this mostly served to prepare him to navigate the art market with open eyes: “Certainly, I should give credit that I learned many things about the capitalist system.” And while the actual fabric and hardware from The Gates was recycled instead of sold, hundreds of preparatory drawings, models, and other related items were purchased by museums and private collectors—all directly from the artists. As Jeanne-Claude says in an interview in the current show’s catalogue: “I say, ‘Well, do you have any idea of the price range?’ And if they don’t…I say, ‘The smallest work, the size of a page, a letter, starts at $50,000.’ And if I hear [the sound of gasping for air] I don’t give an appointment.”

In addition to gasping fits, the drawings in “Over the River” may induce some déjà vu: In 2004, the Gates drawings, some dating back to 1979, were featured in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, “On the Way to The Gates.” The current show resembles that one in many ways: Both are dominated by Christo’s drawings, which are characterized by athletic mark-making and the novel integration of collaged materials. (Only Christo draws; Jeanne-Claude helps generate ideas, keeps people on point, and manages public relations.) As he did with the Gates drawings, Christo at times draws directly on top of black-and-white photographs, superimposing his vision on bits of the visible world; he collages folded pieces of fabric directly into the drawings (except that these new fabrics are blue and dingy, silver, and graphite-smeared white, instead of bright orange); he attaches slivers of photocopied maps and swatches of fabric to the upper or lower margins of the page.

It’s difficult to see how useful any of these studies are for planning purposes. Since 1992, as Over the River has gestated, the workaholic Christo has spent upward of 17 hours a day churning out drawing after drawing. So the exhibit at times looks like a succession of redundant, token works, in which the speed of execution is maintained through an exceedingly limited color palette, a very narrow vocabulary of hatches and scribbles, and a handful of strategies for collaging and composing that don’t seem to have evolved significantly in a couple of decades. Many of the drawings seem to be little more than pricey, one-of-a-kind, autographed souvenirs—making the claim that Christo and Jeanne-Claude don’t do merchandising seem a little specious.

Take, for example, two different Over the River drawings: Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado (1992), and Over the River, Project for the Rio Grande, State of New Mexico (1996). Ostensibly, these two pieces show two different rivers—yet it’s the same image, rendered the same way twice: Ominous volumes of fabric with dark, tightly grouped striations fill the top of the page, crowding out a few jagged rocks in the bottom, which are rendered with sharp black shadows and furiously scribbled mid-tones. The 1992 drawing has a map of the Arkansas River appended; the 1996 version appears to have room for a similar map of the Rio Grande, but the space has been left empty. The composition and the method of construction here trumps any specific imagery, any allusion to place. The artist has essentially made a carbon copy of a work from four years prior. While there’s nothing wrong with multiples per se, it’s surprising to see them from two artists who often proclaim that they never repeat themselves.

So why two different rivers? The answer to this question appears in the title of the first drawing in the chronologically arranged show: 1992’s The River, Project for 5-6 Miles River. This, more than any of the early drawings, obviously indicates no specific place. It’s a simple sketch, even simpler than the two described above but consisting of the same arrangement. Flat stones and water vaguely indicated in the bottom third of the page; a huge volume of fabric in the upper part, indicated by forceful downward strokes in graphite and charcoal—all against a few faint orange grid lines. Here, at the project’s start, it was simply a river, not the river. Because so many of Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s pieces are dependent on location for their meaning, it’s almost disconcerting to be reminded that for many projects, the idea of the experience preexists the selection of an actual site. (Even when the river finally was chosen, this same view of a few stones, water, and bulging cloth kept recurring, albeit with snippets from topographical maps and notes in scrawled half-cursive occupying the margins.)

Typically, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are not interested in raw, unaltered nature; their finished projects always attempt to echo the ways in which humans already use the land. On the Arkansas River, that use is split between industry and recreation, and the remainder of the drawings in the exhibition restate this contrast over and over—images shift from the viewpoint of a rafter, for whom huge fabric panels appear to swallow the sky, and a view from above, in which the cloth metaphorizes whitecaps or waves and seems to echo the nearby highway, showing how humans have followed the topography in building routes across the landscape. Drawing has historically been about mastering the visible world—not just copying it but summoning a force akin to God’s to bring ideas into some tangible form. Viewed this way, Christo’s monomaniacal iterations of these two views of the river aren’t merely attempts to generate product but acts of will. Draw the wished-for thing enough times, and it will become an irrefutable fact.

Paired with these slightly generic, stylized drawings are rows of black-and-white photographs—of a Boy Scout questioning the artists in a high-school auditorium; of outdoor tests in which thousands of gallons of water are passed through suspended fabric; of meetings with the Department of the Interior. Christo and Jeanne-Claude dislike being called conceptual artists, but like so many conceptual artists of the ’70s, the process of determining what to do is often as much of interest as their final, fleeting pieces. In fact, all that is left after their projects are dismantled is this record of the struggle to make it possible. Arguably, the drawings and photos are both the preliminary and the final form, and the impact of a finished Christo and Jeanne-Claude project would mean much less without the endless maneuvering, sketching, and testing, all catalogued for posterity.

Unlike the conceptual art that their work resembles, though, Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s pieces are very much concerned with aesthetics—specifically, with an idea of beauty. This becomes evident once the particular open-weave silver fabric was chosen for this project and drawings sported a new element: sky. A long narrow collage from 1999 was made by drawing directly onto one of Wolfgang Volz’s black-and-white photos of the river; splotchy blue and white clouds appear between folds in the huge drape as smears of enamel paint. Again, Christo attempts to adopt the look of technical drawings, so color is usually restricted to one, maybe two hues; everything is labeled, and faint grid lines hold everything together. But the effect of even this crudely rendered sky is dramatic. It begins to make sense of the original impetus for the project: a romantic moment in 1985 when the pair stood on a flat barge underneath their Pont Neuf Wrapped project in France. “What we saw was fabric suspended in mid-air,” Jeanne-Claude recalls in the catalogue, “the sun shining through it, reflecting on the water of the river Seine. That’s Over the River.”

That encounter with beauty, though, only barely emerges in the show—most notably when the scale of the most recent drawings and collages, dating from 2007, inflates, reaching sizes as large as 65 or 96 inches across. Here, one senses how the artists itch to overwhelm with the scale of the finished project. In one collage from this period, people in a raft pass underneath huge ribbons of dramatically refracted cloud cover. The effect is somewhere between the stilted quality of architectural rendering and the grandeur of a 19th century landscape. As in a painting by J.M.W. Turner, people are tiny, lacking facial features, and they and the surrounding countryside are pushed to the bottom and the margins by a great roiling sky.

It’s also easy enough to read some of the qualities of late modern sculpture by Donald Judd or Richard Serra into the anchors, cables, and suspended fabric in view of one room. Art-historical affinities only get you so far with Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The couple has explained that they chooose the sorts of material already present in the landscapes courtesy of humans. (Think of sandbags on the Mississippi River.) But they come from the same moment in art history as Judd and Serra, and the work they’re making now is inextricably linked to that generation’s ideas. Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s pieces may be temporary interventions, but the scale on which they operate is as grandiose as Serra’s “Torqued Ellipses” series, and their materials are as alien and synthetic as Judd’s serial volumes.

Though Christo and Jeanne-Claude take pains to position themselves outside of art-world trends, traditional art venues, or the art market itself, they’re not nearly as unconventional as they might seem. They’re just exceptionally self-conscious and exceptional stewards of both their own money and legacy. That puts them in a fine-art tradition too: Some of the most game-changing artists of the 20th century—Picasso, Duchamp, Warhol—had the same mania for image control and historical positioning. (The Phillips Collection’s publicist told me that if I interviewed the couple, I’d have to read the text of my finished piece over the phone to the artists before publication, so they could address any necessary corrections. This is apparently standard operating procedure for a couple that has a page dedicated to “Common Errors” on its Web site.)

If ultimately none of the drawings or collages in Over the River have the impact of great works of art—or even compose a successful series when viewed together—they nonetheless testify to extraordinary will, persistence, and fiercely independent thought on behalf of the artists. However utopian their projects sound, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are relentless careerists. They limit where and how money comes into their operation as much for the sake of their public image as their product. In contemporary art, of course, the image of one’s career matters as much or more as the art one actually makes. Over the River underscores just how well Christo and Jeanne-Claude understand this.