“Roberts’s adventurous account provides an exciting indication of where the field of American art is going as it pushes analysis of visual material into new terrain.”
UC Press is incredibly proud of this recognition in particular, and the continued acknowledgement of our American Art History publishing program by the Eldredge Prize: we have now won this distinguished award a total of nine times.
Jennifer L. Roberts is Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. She teaches American art from the colonial period to the present, with particular focus on issues of landscape, expedition, material culture theory, and the history of science, and is the author of Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History and Jasper Johns/In Press: The SI-207-2017 2 Crosshatch Works and the Logic of Print.
Running Fence, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s outdoor installation in Northern California, stood for just two weeks. Though many people traveled to the isolated farmlands of 1970s Sonoma and Marin Counties to view Running Fence, its short existence ensured that relatively few people saw it in person. Considering Running Fence’s fiery conception, a four-year-long battle in which artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude faced the community’s contempt, outrage, and doubt, the mere two weeks that the completed fence stood might seem anticlimactic. But Running Fence is more than the sum of its parts.
Running Fence was nothing to balk at. Standing eighteen feet high and stretching for over twenty-four miles across the rolling hills of Northern California, it was imposing and majestic. Its white fabric ballooned in the wind and reflected light at a myriad of angles and shades, creating blinding, shimmering contours that cut through the land in lines at once soft and sharp.
Beyond its visual resplendence, the Fence is notable for opening a floodgate of interpretations and reactions. It conjures questions of ephemerality, intention, freedom, ownership, limitation, of what is deserving of the label “art,” and of the creative process.
Yet, for all the Fence’s artistic merits as a finished piece, for Christo and Jeanne-Claude, what made it art was not its arresting visual presence jutting through the countryside or any theoretical analysis it may have sparked. The artistic vision of Running Fence lies not only in the fence itself, but also in the long and arduous process of its creation.
Indeed, erecting the fence was no small feat. Contentious public hearings in which locals questioned the project’s artistic integrity, a 450-page environmental impact report, and multiple court sessions, not to mention its $3 million cost and the hundreds of laborers needed to complete its construction, all contributed to the difficulties through which Christo and Jeanne-Claude persevered.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude found themselves in a Sisyphean struggle, pushing against incredible opposition only so they could remove all traces of their ultimate success so shortly after they had achieved it. But it seems as if Christo and Jeanne-Claude would have wanted it no other way.
Running Fence’s meaning is found in the journey, not its end. The completed Fence was only a part of a larger project. Christo and Jeanne-Claude had an uphill battle to fight, but in that struggle lies their art’s significance. In one of the public hearings that underscored the controversy behind Running Fence, Christo, quoted in Brian O’Doherty’s Christo and Jeanne-Claude, responds to the many vociferous and emphatic assertions that the Fence is not art, “The work is not only the fabric, the steel poles and the Fence. The art project is right now here. Everybody here is part of my work if they want it or don’t want it.” Despite Running Fence’s rough beginnings, or perhaps because of them, Christo and Jeanne-Claude embrace the Fence’s whole history, from concept to creation.
Portraits of some of the fifty-nine landowners that allowed the Fence to run through their private property lend a human face to the great level of collaboration Christo and Jeanne-Claude achieved. Photographs of the Fence’s construction reveal the magnitude of the undertaking. Stunning photographs of the completed project enable us to see what art historian Werner Spies, quoted in Christo and Jeanne-Claude, described as a “startling piece of calligraphy . . . a dreamy arabesque.” And photographs of Christo and Jeanne-Claude show the artists, giddy and determined, as their project progresses toward fruition. Through artifacts, essays, and testimonials from people that took part in creating Running Fence, the process continues, and we are made a part of it.
Running Fence may have stood for only two weeks, but its grandeur as an object and, moreover, as a testament to perseverance, courage, and belief, is enough to earn its permanence in our memories.
The prize, which was first awarded in 1989, is named for University of Kansas Distinguished Professor of American Art and Culture Charles C. Eldredge, who is a former director of the museum and founded the American Art Forum. Past winning UC Press titles include Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s by Cécile Whiting (2009) and Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School by Rebecca Zurier (2007).
Granted to books that demonstrate outstanding scholarship in the field of American art, the prize includes a cash award of $3000 for the author. Factors taken into account when determining the prize’s winner include originality of research, the impact of the book on debates in the field and whether the book breaks through traditional boundaries.
The jurors who awarded Savage the prize called his work “wide ranging and deeply nuanced.”
“In part by design, in part by happenstance, the evolution of the Mall has been, Savage argues, a two-century tale of eloquent, shifting national self-definition. A relic-less site of civic pilgrimage, this public space with its monuments, vistas, urban forests and mass demonstrations, has proven a powerful battle ground of warring ideologies but also a site of national consensus-building,” they wrote in a press release.
Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said, “Kirk Savage has written a compelling book about the history of one of the most important civic spaces in the United States that contributes an important perspective to the ongoing discussion of the role of the National Mall.”
Savage is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to his recent award-winning book, he is the author of “Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America”.