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Exhibit offers glimpse behind Christo's whimsical walls

PORTLAND, Maine -- It was a warm June evening in 1962 when a truck squeaked to a stop and men began heaving empty oil drums down to a scrawny fellow below, the artist Christo. He and the men laid the drums across the width of Rue Visconti, the narrowest street in Paris, and began piling them up row upon row, blocking traffic and attracting a curious crowd.

A policeman arrived and ordered them to stop, but Christo's soon-to-be-wife, Jeanne-Claude, dressed to the nines in a Christian Dior evening gown, stalled him by insisting on speaking to a higher-ranking official. The men continued stacking.

The couple had tried unsuccessfully for months to get permission, so they just went ahead and took the street. A half-hour later, the wall of barrels stood 14 feet high. More officers arrived, including a police chief. After various stalling tactics, Jeanne-Claude finally played on family connections that won them testy permission to keep the wall -- which they dubbed the ''Iron Curtain" -- up until 1 a.m. and no later.

Forty years hence, what does such a stunt still hold for us?

''Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Würth Museum Collection," at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, begins to reveal an answer. The exhibit, which runs through Dec. 31, imports from the German museum 80 sketches, sculptures, and photographs. Spanning five decades, they range from early wrapped oil cans and road signs to drawings related to ''The Gates," in which several thousand arches hung with orange curtains were spread over the paths of New York's Central Park for two weeks last February.

Christo Javacheff studied art in his native Bulgaria, where assignments included painting Lenin and Stalin on factory walls and advising farmers along the Orient Express railway on how to artfully arrange their machines and materials (even wrapping hay) to impress Western passengers. In 1957, the then-21-year-old artist fled the communist country for Austria and later Paris. There, a portrait commission introduced him to the debutante Jeanne-Claude. Before long, the two became lovers and coconspirators, dreaming up and puzzling out the logistics of their signature grand constructions.

In 2002, when they spoke at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, their public persona was a sort of art-world comedy duo: she a cunning wisecracker, he a bumbling straight man. Beginning in Paris and continuing after the couple settled in New York City in 1964, their art reveals an obsession with the metaphorical Iron Curtain that isolated the communist East of Christo's youth from the capitalist West, where he made his name.

On the one hand, they seem to have sought to heal this wound by poetically mimicking and transforming the symbols of the separation. One example is ''Running Fence," a curtain that ran across 25 miles of California ranchland for two weeks in 1976. Originally conceived to stand alongside the Berlin Wall, instead it was built to the same length in the middle of nowhere -- a ghostly echo, fluttering in the breeze, parodying the concrete German edifice.

On the other hand, Christo and Jeanne-Claude clearly resist yoking art to edifying purposes. Behind the Iron Curtain, art was often designed to celebrate the state or advance its goals; monuments testified to the state's power and permanence.

In contrast, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have created what they called ''absolutely unnecessary" art, delicate and impermanent, driven by their whims. With pieces such as ''The Umbrellas," which speckled giant umbrellas across California hills and Japanese river valleys in 1991, and ''The Gates," they've pursued the freedom of tomfoolery, making art as temporary as carnivals and evoking a similar sense of shared joyful breaks from the daily grind.

Their masterpiece was wrapping the Reichstag, the old German parliament building in Berlin, in silver fabric for two weeks in June 1995. Planning and negotiations began in 1971 for the project -- represented here in preparatory drawings (the couple sells such drawings to finance projects), a large model, and a photograph of the final work.

Christo has said that he was inspired as much by the idea of transforming the historic building as by a desire to push the great Eastern and Western powers still occupying postwar Germany into discussion. Because the building was located on land that crossed the East-West divide, the project required permission from both sides.

In his dramatic drawings, we see Christo, by the force of his vision, willing the work into the world. As luck would have it, the plan would not come to fruition until Germany was reunited. In that moment, the final project suggested a shrouding of the country's past as well as a cocoon promising new life.

In the Portland exhibit, such monumental works are physically absent but spectrally present. Time, cost, and the artists' previous commitments prevented them from erecting something locally, according to a museum official. But this gap also points out how the couple's work is ultimately about memories. It speaks to how we treasure ephemeral things -- the colors of autumn afternoons, a Red Sox World Series win, loved ones lost.

Forty years after Christo and Jeanne-Claude's ''Iron Curtain" stood for a few hours, and 16 years since the Berlin Wall it mimicked fell, their work still asks us to reconsider our world, our seemingly intractable divisions, and how permanent they really are.

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