MIAMI â It might have been the first time a traffic jam in South Florida ended in smiles. On the afternoon of May 7, 1983, cars began to slow down on the causeways that sail over Biscayne Bay and connect Miami Beach with the mainland. Many motorists stopped altogether, hopping out onto the road for a better look at the surreal sight in the bay: 11 small, uninhabited islands were newly surrounded by 6.5 million square feet of pink woven polypropylene fabric, each looking like a 200-foot-wide, pastel-colored lily pad, shimmering in the tropical sunlight.
This cultural moment is now receiving a deep dive at the PÃ©rez Art Museum Miami with âChristo and Jeanne-Claude: Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-1983/A Documentary Exhibition,â an exhaustive chronicle of the project from conception through legal hurdles to the nuts and bolts of its waterborne installation. The show celebrates not only the 35th anniversary of âSurrounded Islandsâ â a spectacle with an oddly matter-of-fact title by the Bulgarian-born and New York City-based artist Christo and his artistic partner and wife, Jeanne-Claude â but also the de facto 35th anniversary of the museum itself. The institutionâs earliest precursor, the Center for the Fine Arts, opened its doors in January 1984, basking in the afterglow of âSurrounded Islandsâ and hoping to appeal to a mass audience that was primed for fresh thinking about avant-garde artwork.
That connection was particularly resonant for RenÃ© Morales, a curator at the PÃ©rez, who adapted the show from a European iteration. He had witnessed âSurrounded Islandsâ firsthand as an 8-year-old, having arrived in Miami from Cuba with his family three years earlier. âWhat I remember more than the project itself is the look on my fatherâs face,â Mr. Morales recalled of their trip to a spot above it. âThis look of excitement and wonder! Throughout my career, Iâve always thought back on that as what I want to do with my work. I love the idea of helping artists create that same sense of wonder in an audience.â
âWhatâs so inspiring, not just for a curator here in Miami, but for any museum worker anywhere,â Mr. Morales continued, âis this idea of attaining an art form that is able to speak directly to people across the full gamut of society without the need of an institutional framework around it.â Even better, he added, is that âthis isnât taking place out in the middle of nowhere, where you have to make a journey, and only the art cognoscenti know about it. This is smack in the middle of the city.â
Still, while âSurrounded Islandsâ may be widely celebrated today as a transcendent experience â and a celebratory turning point for a city then reeling from a vast crime wave, recurring racial violence and endemic civic corruption â support for it was anything but universal in May 1983. Over the preceding months, interest in Christoâs project had reached a fever pitch, spiked by exhaustive media coverage and even an anti-Christo performance artist who grabbed headlines. It seemed as if everyone in Miami had an opinion on it, from supporters wearing âI Dig Pinkâ T-shirts and âGo for It Christoâ buttons to ecologists who filed lawsuits, fearing damage to the bay and its marine life.
The author and conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a driving force behind the Florida environmental movement, dismissed âSurrounded Islandsâ as âperfectly ridiculous,â adding, âI canât imagine why anyone would want to go see these things.â And even some in the art world remained dubious. Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in an appearance on the ABC News program âNightline,â said with a sneer that Christoâs handiwork was âto true art as an oil slick is to the Sistine ceiling.â
But once âSurrounded Islandsâ became a reality, with pelicans arcing overhead, manatees mating underneath, and spellbound onlookers circling by land, sea and air for its two-week duration, even the most strident critics came around. Bill Cosford, an arts columnist for The Miami Herald who had previously written a string of blistering attacks on the project as âaesthetically offensive,â promptly published a heartfelt mea culpa on behalf of his fellow skeptics: âWe wised up, like foxhole atheists, once the thing was in place.â
Christo himself remains hesitant to dissect the ultimate meaning of his âSurrounded Islands,â even 35 years later. âJeanne-Claude would say we are simply borrowing a public space to create a gentle disturbance,â he mused in a recent telephone interview about his partner, who died in 2009. âEverything inherent in that space becomes a work of art. We did not invent ecology in Biscayne Bay. We didnât create the politics around it.â
But all of that, he continued, was as much a part of the artwork as the pink fabric. Even the people opposing his project were still thinking about art â even, or especially, if they had never previously given much thought to the nature of it.
âThat is why we never do commissions,â he said, âwe always do projects where the energy is created by the process of getting permission. There are no grants, no foundations, no government funding.â The entire $3.1 million budget for âSurrounded Islandsâ came from Christo himself, via the sale of his preparatory sketches and models.
Today, it might be tempting to see âSurrounded Islandsâ as not only ground zero for the expansion of Miamiâs contemporary art scene, but also as the template for the annual Art Basel Miami Beach fair, which has enormous local popularity. Over-the-top events that take over and temporarily transform the entire city, appealing to dazzled throngs who rarely set foot inside a museum the rest of the year, they seem to share DNA. And despite their populist appeal, both are events powered solely by the art marketâs rarefied sliver of wealthy collectors.
Yet Mr. Morales bristled at such a comparison, noting that much of the frenzied activity around Art Basel was organized by those who parachute into town without any connection to Miamiâs homegrown art milieu. âThe art community didnât get plopped down here by aliens,â he said. âItâs a deeply rooted part of our city and it has evolved over decades. It didnât just land on a spaceship called Basel.â
Indeed, years before Christoâs arrival, Miami was home to a creatively thriving crew of artists, including the sculptor Robert Thiele and the painter Salvatore La Rosa, both selected for the 1975 Whitney Biennial; the painter Robert Huff, whose sprawling murals, including one inside the Miami airport, often stopped intrigued travelers short; and the painter Lynne Golub Gelfman, now receiving a long-overdue solo show at the PÃ©rez. Instead, Mr. Morales argued, the real lesson from âSurrounded Islandsâ should be to forget about the art market altogether and focus on how two single individuals â Christo and Jeanne-Claude â were able to capture the imagination of an entire city.
âItâs so much about showing the potential of freeing oneself from pre-existing parameters like, âIf it doesnât make money, then why do it?ââ he said. âIf you can free yourself from that kind of mental stoppage, look at what great things can happen!â