Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Wool works at the National Gallery of Victoria


In 1958 Eric Westbrook, then director of the NGV, established a department of Exhibitions, headed from 1961 by the very professional and energetic John Stringer who helped lead the way for the Gallery to become increasingly involved in exhibitions of contemporary and international art.1John Stringer (1937–2007) worked at the NGV from 1957 to 1970, first as assistant in the Print Room under Dr Ursula Hoff and, from 1961 as Exhibitions Officer. In 1970 he moved to New York to take up the position of Assistant Director of MoMA’s International Program. For further details, see my article, ‘We mean business’: John Stringer (1937–2007), Art Monthly Australia, March 2008, p. 20. It was Stringer, working in collaboration with Brian Finemore, curator of Australian Art, who spearheaded The Field as the controversial inaugural exhibition for the new NGV building on St Kilda Road in 1968.2Including artists such as Imants Tillers, Marr Grounds and Ian Milliss. Focusing on young, relatively unknown Australian artists working in the international hard-edge style, it was a bold and challenging move for the times.

In November the following year, Stringer again found himself at the leading edge of contemporary practice when he took on the logistical responsibility for an installation by the international team Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the Keith Murdoch Court, an open-air space adjoining the NGV temporary exhibitions gallery. The pair had been brought to Australia by John Kaldor, a successful textiles designer and businessman who negotiated and coordinated the ambitious project of their wrapping 2.4 kilometres of coast at Sydney’s Little Bay during October 1969. The sheer bravado and enormity of this Wrapped coast installation – the first of the artists’ land-claiming projects – and its spectacular presence in the environment, has led to it being considered one of the greatest ephemeral outdoor installations of the twentieth century. It was certainly seminal to contemporary art in Australia as a defining moment for many artists who volunteered to help with its installation.3Brian Finemore (1925–1975) co-curated The Field with Stringer. He was curator of Australian art at the NGV, 1959–1975.

After completing the Little Bay project, Christo and Jeanne-Claude undertook another installation, Wool works,4Christo refers to this work as Wool bales as a working title. which opened at the NGV on 1 November 1969 (fig. 2).5Wool works was exhibited at the NGV, 1–30 November 1969. It consisted of two stacks of wool bales wrapped in tarpaulin and bound with ropes, with a smaller row of bales located nearby. As a more modest project Wool works has been somewhat overshadowed in comparison to Wrapped coast, but the recent acquisition by the NGV of one of Christo’s preparatory drawings, Project for Keith Murdoch Court, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1969 (fig. 1), provides a welcome reference point for this key moment in the history of the NGV.

Resistance and challenges

Despite the difference in scale, both Australian projects encountered resistance and faced a range of challenges. Finding a suitable location for Wrapped coast was difficult and, during installation, the project had to overcome problems such as hoodlums setting fire to the work, and considerable damage was caused by a violent storm with gale-force winds that ripped the straw-coloured mesh wrapping.6See Daniel Thomas ‘Reminiscing’, in 40 Years Kaldor Art Projects, Kaldor Public Art Projects, 2009. A sheet of the Little Bay wrapping was overprinted as the invitation to an exhibition of Christo’s work, 22 October – 8 November 1969 at Central Street Gallery, Sydney, NGV archive.

In Melbourne John Stringer’s first challenge was to gain approval from the Council of Trustees to stage the Wool works installation at the NGV. Clearly there was some hesitation on the council’s part, for a decision on the matter was deferred. Subsequently, at a special meeting of trustees held on 15 July 1969, Stringer presented a proposal that the NGV policy for exhibitions be extended to include both installations and ‘happenings’, thereby reflecting current developments in contemporary art. In support of this he appealed to the trustees’ sense of civic obligation: ‘May I suggest to Council that since Melbourne no longer has a Museum of Modern Art, we have the additional responsibility of keeping our public informed on recent art movements’.7John Stringer, submission, 10 July 1969, to Council of Trustees, Special Meeting, 15 July 1969, NGV archive. With the full support of Eric Westbrook, his persuasive argument carried the day and, with the project approved, Stringer set about the complex task of orchestrating the logistics; these included finding suitable wool bales, sourcing the right ropes (hemp, not plastic) and tarpaulins, as well as recruiting a team of artists to assist.

A suitable alternative

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s concept called for a number of bales to be stacked and covered by tarpaulins tied by knotted ropes of relatively short lengths. In addition several wool bales placed in the foreground were to be opened and rearranged with wool spilling out of them. This aspect proved extraordinarily difficult to resolve, as Stringer informed Christo in August: ‘In my negotiations with the Wool Board I now find that although they are happy and anxious to cooperate in providing the wool bales for the stacks, they are unhappy about the supplementary area with the unwrapped and open wool bales … our outdoor conditions would be unfavourable to having the wool exposed to the atmosphere’. Stringer sought other suppliers, but with the same outcome, so in early October he suggested an alternative approach of placing the open bales inside the nearby temporary exhibitions gallery, close to the large windows where they could be read in conjunction with the larger stack.8Stringer, letter to Christo, 8 October 1969, NGV archive. This solution was acceptable to Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and seventy-five partly opened wool bales were subsequently displayed within the climatically controlled confines of the gallery. The monolith of tarpaulin-wrapped bales exposed to the elements was clearly visible in the courtyard beyond, and thirteen drawings by Christo, including four preparatory drawings for Wool works, were also included in the display. Although the placement of the open bales was not as originally intended, the contrast between the raw fleece with its pungent reminder of rural life and the sophisticated interior of the silver-foiled temporary exhibitions gallery was compelling.9See Charles Green, The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis/London, 2001, p. 132.

Helping hands

Recruiting workers to help with the installation was an easier task. Stringer had an enthusiastic response from artists such as Les Kossatz, Peter Clarke, John Davis, Clifford Last, Ti Parks, William Ferguson, Peter Corlett, Clive Murray-White and Jock Clutterbuck, while students suggested by Alun Leach-Jones included David Wilson, Jonas Balsaitis, Les Krum, Dennis Spiteri, Roger Butler and Simon Klose – who also assisted with the Little Bay project.10Some of these artists, notably John Davis, Ti Parks and Clive Murray-White, directed their own work towards conceptual and installation art in the following years. Simon Klose exhibited conceptual works at Pinacotheca before becoming an art administrator and is currently director of the Benalla Art Gallery; Roger Butler is currently a senior curator at the National Gallery of Australia. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue which featured an essay by Jean van der Mark, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and both the invitation to the opening reception, printed on transparent plastic, and the catalogue, loosely based on a mock-up by Christo, were designed by Stringer with his distinctive contemporary flair.11It had been Stringer who determined that the walls of the temporary exhibitions gallery at the NGV would be covered in silver foil when the building opened in 1968. Christo, mocked-up catalogue, NGV archive.

Critical comments

In its Australianness Wool works paid oblique homage to Tom Roberts’s iconic painting Shearing the rams, 1890, a highlight of the NGV collection, but even so, the installation ‘aroused the usual howls of protest’ from some quarters in the media.12Stringer, letter to Jean van der Mark, 11 November 1969, NGV archive. The critic Alan McCulloch, writing for the Herald, used it as an opportunity to comment on the Vietnam War: ‘Wrapping the wool bales is a meaningless procedure and only emphasises this point: that post-Modern art is like the war in Vietnam – very easy to get into but nobody knows how to get out’;13Herald, 5 November 1969, p. 36. while Alan Warren in the Sun commented: ‘The result can only be descrived as obvious, the type of job one would expect from any truck driver’.14Sun, 5 November 1969, NGV archive.

Ann Galbally, writing for the Age, took a more measured stance, relating Wool works back to the Dada movement and to a Henry Moore drawing Crowd looking at tied-up object, 1942, ‘in which a group of people are gazing at a tall rectangular packaged object, covered with material and bound with knotted ropes in a very much Christo manner’. She perceptively noted that, while ‘Christo aims at provoking a reflex response in the viewer, believing spectator participation to be fundamental to his art … one cannot free oneself from the work’s sense of ominous brooding’.15Age, 3 November 1969, p. 2. Stringer also advocated for the work, making reference to earlier artists:

Great artists of the past have influenced and conditioned our response to our environment – the Impressionists for instance made us aware of the qualities of light. Christo’s significance may be tested and proved in our future response not only to wrapped and covered objects but also to the stockpiles of standard objects and goods in which we have previously found no aesthetic delight.16Bulletin, December 1969, p. 6.

Notwithstanding Stringer’s commitment and enthusiasm, the Council of Trustees refused to acquire one of Christo’s preparatory drawings for Wool works when it was submitted for purchase in December 1969, despite the fact that it had Eric Westbrook’s approval and the recommendation of the Acquisitions Committee. Stringer conveyed the disappointing news to John Kaldor: ‘I am distressed to report that the Trustees, at their meeting yesterday afternoon, declined the recommendation of the Acquisitions Sub-Committee and did not purchase the Christo Wool Bales drawing.17Stringer, letter to John Kaldor, 3 December 1969, NGV archive. The NGV held onto the drawing for a while as Westbrook hoped a private donor might help acquire the work but this was unsuccessful and the opportunity was lost. The 2010 acquisition of the drawing Project for Keith Murdoch Court, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1969, which features photo-collage by Harry Shunk, means that Stringer and Westbrook’s ambition has been realised at last and the NGV can celebrate this 1969 moment into the future.

Frances Lindsay, Deputy Director, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2011).

Notes

I would like to express my gratitude to Dr Charles Green for his helpful suggestions on this article; and to thank Sophie Cotter-Gardner, Judith Ryan and Isobel Crombie for their assistance.

1      John Stringer (1937–2007) worked at the NGV from 1957 to 1970, first as assistant in the Print Room under Dr Ursula Hoff and, from 1961 as Exhibitions Officer. In 1970 he moved to New York to take up the position of Assistant Director of MoMA’s International Program. For further details, see my article, ‘We mean business’: John Stringer (1937–2007), Art Monthly Australia, March 2008, p. 20.

2      Including artists such as Imants Tillers, Marr Grounds and Ian Milliss.

3      Brian Finemore (1925–1975) co-curated The Field with Stringer. He was curator of Australian art at the NGV, 1959–1975.

4      Christo refers to this work as Wool bales as a working title.

5      Wool works was exhibited at the NGV, 1–30 November 1969.

6      See Daniel Thomas ‘Reminiscing’, in 40 Years Kaldor Art Projects, Kaldor Public Art Projects, 2009. A sheet of the Little Bay wrapping was overprinted as the invitation to an exhibition of Christo’s work, 22 October – 8 November 1969 at Central Street Gallery, Sydney, NGV archive.

7      John Stringer, submission, 10 July 1969, to Council of Trustees, Special Meeting, 15 July 1969, NGV archive.

8      Stringer, letter to Christo, 8 October 1969, NGV archive.

9      See Charles Green, The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis/London, 2001, p. 132.

10      Some of these artists, notably John Davis, Ti Parks and Clive Murray-White, directed their own work towards conceptual and installation art in the following years. Simon Klose exhibited conceptual works at Pinacotheca before becoming an art administrator and is currently director of the Benalla Art Gallery; Roger Butler is currently a senior curator at the National Gallery of Australia.

11      It had been Stringer who determined that the walls of the temporary exhibitions gallery at the NGV would be covered in silver foil when the building opened in 1968. Christo, mocked-up catalogue, NGV archive.

12      Stringer, letter to Jean van der Mark, 11 November 1969, NGV archive.

13      Herald, 5 November 1969, p. 36.

14      Sun, 5 November 1969, NGV archive.

15      Age, 3 November 1969, p. 2.

16      Bulletin, December 1969, p. 6.

17      Stringer, letter to John Kaldor, 3 December 1969, NGV archive.