In 1969, the magazine Art in America devoted a feature to “Impossible Art,” declaring that it “paradoxically, is possible.”(1) Looking at categories as wide ranging as Earthworks, visionary architecture, and conceptual art, critic David Shirley identified that unrealizable works were not only reshaping how major figures of the art world—artists, dealers, curators, and patrons—related to one another, but they were adding new professions to the arts, namely architects, engineers, and even civic officials. This art was deemed impossible for a number of reasons: the scale was proposed to be of enormous physical proportions, the costs were prohibitive, and the technology required was advanced beyond then-available expertise. Yet for select individuals, these were not daunting hurdles. One such set were the bold and resourceful collectors John and Dominique de Menil, as exemplified in their call for proposals of “dream monuments” in the city of Houston. The commission of these large-scale, site-specific works, however, would remain one of the many “impossibilities” of the era.
Born of Dominique de Menil’s role in organizing the United States tour of 18th-century drawings by French draftsmen titled Visionary Architects: Boullée, Ledoux, Lequeu, the display of “dream monuments” was to trace the history of the concept across eras and geographies using mainly drawings, photographs, and models. The couple actively worked on the theme, including an outdoor addendum for contemporary sculptures to the gallery display. The couple looked to New York’s John Gibson Projects for Commissions and its eponymous owner to engage a cohort of artists for the idea. Gibson’s business traded in what has been called a kind of “art futures,”(2) selling not the physical works themselves but rather the stewardship of a custom project for interested patrons. Through Gibson, among other personal networks, the de Menils’ project caught the interest of artists including Carl Andre, Christo, Peter Hutchinson, Will Insley, Richard Long, Robert Morris, and Robert Smithson, all of whom made proposals in some capacity (see fig. 2). As the project and the artworks proposed for it were never achieved, what remains of these so-called dream monuments are archival records like letters, receipts, and the papers that document their ambitious ideas.
A close study of a selection of the unrealized proposals considered for the original Dream Monuments exhibition, alongside the artist’s own perspectives on their work, reveals a substantial engagement with the disciplines of architecture and engineering. As their art grew in scale, a few of the commissioned artists—Christo, Will Insley, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Smithson—began working within and against the conventions of those fields. Freely borrowing from the technical drafting and documentary standards at the time, the drawings from Dream Monuments under discussion here propose sculptures that would have required an astonishing and rarely seen confluence of engineering feats, massive tracts of land, sky-high budgets, and indefatigable patrons and municipal advocates. Using the medium itself as the primary lens, this text explores how the provisional, prognosticative character of technical drawing, as well as its representational strategies, permitted these artists to visualize nascent ideas and solicit financiers, advocates, and partners for their projects. In the process, they tested the very limits of feasibility and even the definition of what constitutes a planning document or building.(3)
Though each of projects considered for Dream Monuments was formidable to construct in its own way, Christo’s proposition is referred to in the de Menils’ archival files as being the most expensive of them all.(4) Some of the artist’s earliest projects, which he made in collaboration with his partner Jeanne-Claude, were stacks of oil barrels situated in public spaces across Europe; one work in 1961 even blocked a city street in Paris’s sixth arrondissement. The artists met the de Menils when one of their mastaba barrel sculptures, a flat-topped construction with sloping sides based on an ancient Egyptian funerary form, was on view in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1968. According to Christo, it was John de Menil who proposed “a larger Mastaba between Houston and Galveston. That’s how the idea evolved.”(5) Following a trip made to Houston at the invitation of the de Menils, Christo and Jeanne-Claude developed the project between 1969 and 1974 over the course of several drawings and models.(6) According to Paul Wiggins, then a Rice University architecture student enlisted by the de Menils to accompany artists on site visits, Christo’s early verbalizations his project involved stacking oil barrels inside the city’s Astrodome, a newly built state-of-the-art sporting arena.(7)
Early iterations of his proposal however do not depict a particular locale, but a schematic drawing that details the material mass of the structure, heightened by the dramatic contrast of shadow. Fine perspectival lines used to draw the prism-like shape are still visible, with dimension and extension lines across the base of the mastaba. Also featured are inset shop drawings of barrels and a cluster of people to give a sense of relative size (fig. 3). Later drawings are more akin to location plans and separate the sheet into three registers. Maps and sometimes printed photographs are used to place structures into a proposed site, such as alongside a highway or in a city park. Christo’s drawings overlay multiple approaches to information display onto one sheet, and at a certain point scale models were made based upon these works.(8)
For Christo, “drawing is a path towards reality.”(9) His archives are filled with permit applications and photographs from site visits for various projects that would never come to fruition, but it is his drawings that he has called “the history, the archives of a project,” as they show how his thinking developed.(10) The artists made selections of their art available for purchase to support both themselves and their projects. The de Menils purchased one of these works in 1968, the drawing 4584 Tonneaux Métalliques, Project for the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome, 1967, an acquisition facilitated by John Gibson (fig. 4).