By Ray Lesser
Christo’s Central Park art installation The Gates was a tremendous success, particularly in the way it united art critics with critics of art: They all hated it. As one New Yorker critic shrilly stated, “The work’s charm-free, synthetic orange hue – saffron? no way – is something you would wear only in the woods during deer season, in order to avoid being shot.” Meanwhile other self-appointed guardians of our culture had the opportunity to point out why all modern art is bad. “Instead of spending $20 million dollars to ruin the Park with curtains that no one in their right mind would even hang in the shower, maybe we should send Christo to a school that could teach him how to draw,” said one smug letter writer. And of course comedians like David Letterman piled on: “When I get mugged by a guy hiding behind a giant curtained arch, which city agency should I sue?” But the more the critics sputtered, hissed and smirked, the more the throngs, numbering in the millions, came to witness this remarkable 16 day, 23 mile pageant of pomp creating its own circumstance.
What is there about art that draws us in, or repels us, as the case may be? Art is not what we want, or expect, or are used to, yet somehow it creates for us a meaning that never before existed. Even if that meaning happens to be, “Isn’t this the silliest thing you ever saw?”
When my wife, Sue, saw a photo of The Gates in the newspaper, she immediately began making plans for us to take a trip to New York to see it. “I can’t believe it’s happening now!” she said enthusiastically. “I thought this project happened years ago and I missed it.”
In fact, Christo worked for 26 years to convince New York City officials to allow him to create The Gates in Central Park. But the original proposal of miles of park pathways lined with 15,000 fabric-draped steel gates, also called for digging 30,000 postholes. “Back then,” says Doug Blonsky, president of Central Park Conservancy, “the question for the park was: How do we restore the crown jewel of New York City? Not: How do we come in and dig up 30,000 holes.” A N.Y. city commissioner recalled, “Damaging tree roots, digging through rock, it was like a parody of the Beatles lyric: How many holes does it take to fill the Albert Hall?”
But Christo, who has lived in Manhattan with his wife and partner Jean-Claude since 1964, refused to give up on the project. When more advanced technology allowed him to construct The Gates safely, without the necessity of holes to anchor them, the project came back to life, particularly since, like all his projects, he was willing to pay the entire cost out of his own pocket.
Like many artists through the ages, Christo and his art are considered by many people to be absurd, useless, and even dangerous (during the installation of his work, The Umbrellas, consisting of 3,100 umbrellas planted across 30 miles of countryside in California and Japan, one umbrella, unmoored by a sudden gust of wind, killed a spectator). Members of the New York art scene also have had a love/hate relationship with the couple, dating back to their early attempts to insinuate themselves into the top echelon by inviting all the most famous local artists to their infamously bad dinner parties. Art critic David Bourdon recalled, “People were contemptuous of them. They were perceived as being very pushy. And then they served these god-awful meals. A lot of the unpopularity they met with in the early days was directed against Christo’s art; the rest was directed against Jeanne-Claude and her flank steak.”
Personally, I have never taken much interest in Christo’s work, other than the sheer scope and audacity of it, but I’m always happy for an excuse to visit New York. Sue was particularly thrilled by this project, because whenever we go to the city she’s always trying to drag me into Central Park. My opinion has been, “You can see trees and grass anywhere. Let’s do the other million things that you can only do in New York, and then if there’s any time left, we can sit in the park and decide where to go out for dinner.”
But on this trip, The Gates transformed the Park into an art Mecca. No need to pay to go into crowded, hushed museums when thousands of acres in the center of Manhattan had become a free exhibition filled with throngs of giddy aficionados snapping each other’s photos, while chattering away about high culture in German, French, and Italian. We walked the miles of icy paths until our legs ached, and our hands and faces were numb from the cold, then went off to enjoy the rest of the ever-present carnival of New York.
One art collector offered the artists $10 million for 50 of the 7,500 fabric-festooned gates, which Christo quickly turned down, saying that he intends for all the material in The Gates to be recycled into such products as gutters, PVC pipe, and carpet padding. The collector then gamely doubled his offer to $20 million. “Nobody can buy this project,” the artist defiantly declared. “Nobody can charge tickets for this project, nobody can own this project – because freedom is an enemy of possession and possession is the equal of permanence.”
So, after only 16 days, it was time for The Gates to come down. “When you are in the presence of the gates you are already feeling the absence,” said Jeanne-Claude, adding to her reputation as the Yoko Ono of the modern art world. Or as one street critic said, “I think whoever came up with this idea must be missing something upstairs. But it don’t really matter because all the people who came here to see it are having a blast.”