Call It a Wrap

John Haber
in New York City

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Gates

When I was boy in New York, my father used to take me "exploring." He must have known and loved Central Park as deeply as I do now, but he had me believing in each turn as a discovery. We liked especially the Ramble, a hilly, wooded network of paths almost in the exact middle of park, north of the lake and south of Belvedere Castle's high ground and open vistas. I understood that, no matter what, I would always end up eventually on the other side, east or west. But hey, you never know.

I felt that sense of discovery again, with the unfurling of The Gates: 1979–2005. It came after weeks of labor for Christo, Jeanne-Claude, and their crew, not to mention the quarter century of planning and lobbying connoted by the work's title. I understood all of that, enough so that surely the work should have settled quickly into the predictable. As soon as I opened my mouth to describe it, however, I found otherwise: with a work like this, you definitely never know. Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates (Central Park Conservancy, 2005)

What could I say? I can hardly call that day an opening, not when the final element, the fabric, descended to cover the gates to barely more than an arm's length above one's head. I cannot even call it a privileged moment. Some 7,500 curtain calls do not take place in an instant, and the other elements had been building for weeks. I could indeed call it exploring, with the entirety of Central Park ready for rediscovery. But can I call it art?

Nowhere to sit

Some had their doubts. My father, for one, bemusedly called it a happening. Of the astounding February tourist traffic, few enough may have cared one way or another. Perhaps they came for both art and an event—just as they might when King Tut or many another museum blockbuster blurs the line between the two.

They had every reason to leave happy as well. Not that they turned to theory to reassure them. Perhaps, as Arthur C. Danto has argued, after Andy Warhol anything can be art. However, this crowd must have included those who bristle at dead cows or supposed pornography on museum walls. Besides, even sophisticates ply candidates for art with questions. Just days after the gates closed forever, the Met was sniffily removing framed canvases that a "quality vandal" named Banksy had found, altered to his own tastes, and slipped onto its walls.

Perhaps, as others have it, art relies on the imprimatur of art institutions. However, even a tourist delighted by the new Museum of Modern Art may well distrust self-appointed elites. Perhaps, then, art turns on a culture's shared assumptions. However, crowds this large surely share little more than their visit. Central Park's very borders, from the Plaza to Harlem, stand as an affront to cozy claims for a single American tradition. Yet it seems just as meaningless for me to accept, like John Carey, anything that anyone counts as art.

Perhaps, too, as in more conservative views, all art goes back to deep psychological roots—in a sense of beauty, a delight in perception, and a need for self-expression. At least one fashion designer, writing in Newsday, might have agreed. She found in the color-coordinated vinyl (seriously) an activity not unlike her own. Then again, Thomas Hoving, the former parks commissioner and museum director, should know something about beauty and blockbusters, and he thought the orange fabric had roughly the visual appeal of cheap shower curtains. As for self-expression, the artists delegated almost everything about the work but its publicity stills.

I do not mean to dismiss the entire philosophy of art in three paragraphs. This Web site keeps returning to art's ways of making meaning, in the tricky interplay of perception and understanding. Rather, I want to suggest, first, that record numbers did come away satisfied with an encounter with art. And, second, they did it by bringing diverse but readily familiar habits of seeing. At least since Modernism, these include a personal engagement with the art and its surroundings, curiosity and wonder, and a considerable degree of perplexity.

In other words, The Gates may not easily support a single criterion for art. However, it does not so much shred lingering definitions as draw on a multitude. It would not sit still for the categories of sculpture, earthwork, landscape architecture, performance, collaboration, concept, knock-off, or abstract painting. Instead, it shifted among all these before one's eyes—and that alone rescued it from a sixteen-day-long passing sensation. It turned philosophers, tourists, and New Yorkers alike into explorers.

Post Minimalism

To appreciate the work's changing self-definitions, I, too, had to pass through the gates, both as metaphor and in reality. I had to follow it over an expanse as great as Central Park's 843 acres, and I had to return more than once. Perhaps most of all, I had to begin before the opening.

Two weeks before opening day, The Gates were clearly rising. And here I expected them suddenly to unfurl.

As the first stages of installation became visible, the park's pedestrian paths acquired the foundations for would ultimately become miles of vinyl gates and fabric. One could mistake the regularly spaced, dark gray slabs for height-deprived benches, did they not so often compete with actual park benches to either side. Each consisted of a weighty horizontal, set on two equally bare feet, which pinned down knee-high plastic frames. Those flanges, which alerted passersby and snowplows to the presence of the metal bases, alone suggest the forethought involved.

The bright plastic dotted the snow with color, as variable as winter sunlight. Christo insists on calling the shade saffron, as if testifying to New York's ethnic diversity and gourmet sophisticates. For my money, though, orange seemed right at home with the city's acrid intensity. The scene's charm quickly overcame my wonder that anyone would be dumb enough to tackle the Frederick Law Olmsted landscaping in the middle of winter. It also started to wear down fears that the Bulgarian-born artist recycles a formula rather than seeks something genuinely site specific.

As I walked, the sheer number of pedestals testified to the project's audacity, as well as to the planning and coordination it required. So did the slabs that still often lacked a final placement. Workers had yet to grapple with ill-maintained patches of pavement—or the great Calvert Vaux stairs. Years ago, when New York City rejected the project, Christo had proposed drilling into the ground, but the shattering of rock would have left inadequate support for the posts, not to mention permanent damage. Now the slabs alone had to do the job, and they did.

For all their industrial nature, one could not mistake these foundations for Minimalism, a completed work, or even art. One could call them "Post" Minimalism waiting earnestly for its posts. Still, they seemed more than auspicious. The work had asserted its physical existence, even while its presence stretched everywhere and nowhere at all. As I strolled, I could appreciate it not just as an event or as landscape art, but also as sculpture, process, and collective.

A little over a week later, The Gates looked more decidedly like gates. Their tall rectangles straddled the walkways with a pungent spareness, without the fabric that would eventually make them appear less literally like earthly portals. I thought of an exhibition at Exit Art devoted to the alternative museum's remodeling, to a city perpetually under construction, and to the making of art and careers. When it invited artists to begin constructing and installing their pieces only on opening day, I compared it to the old handle "action painting," but now as action curating. In much the same way, days before The Gates came into being, it had sprung into action.

Under construction

While the rest of New York dealt with rush hour, teams were at work, and the dedicated "paid volunteers" seemed in no need of coffee. The plastic flanges had largely vanished, and the gates stood tall almost everywhere. In their bare state, along the curving walkways that Tatiana Trouvé later made into her Desire Lines, they gave each distant hill its Stonehenge, only in New York sun worshippers are called "joggers" or "tourists." The city was already experiencing a surge of the latter, perhaps itself a part of the work as performance.

The workers seemed focused but, acknowledging that this project coexists with one of the world's most public spaces, at ease with passers-by. Those who saw me lingering said hello, and they welcomed questions.

About six hundred people managed the assembly. It took five of them a good twenty minutes to prepare a set of vinyl beams and to hoist them into place—quite apart from the time and effort to bring thousands of parts where needed. You can pull out your calculator to get a feel for how much labor was required to erect 7,500 gates. Okay, I shall: each team had to handle about sixty in a matter of days. Since the artists' first proposal long ago, the project had scaled back by half, but that left plenty to do.

The workers bolted a square metal housing into the single hole in each of the stark gray bases. Each housing came equipped with four screws to hold the sixteen-foot-tall vertical beams, although a small block, the same orange as the risers, hid the mechanics. For now, the crossbars, in piles on the roads or high overhead, came wrapped in a kind of pouch, with a loop designed to release the fabric.

Erecting the assembly looked coolly efficient. The process seemed closer to the video-game version of an assembly line than to the industrial-weight constructions of Richard Serra. Someone slipped an extra, temporary metal housing, designed to align the beams, onto each base. The team then fitted the orange blocks and crosspiece onto the pair of verticals. In maybe half a minute, the group had tilted the combination up and into place. Bolts tightened a tad more slowly, the temporary housings slipped off and onto the next housing, and the show must and would go on.

Again I admired the details of planning and process at least as much as the spectacle. I had read about the coordinated activity of hundreds in building Running Fence, turning miles of American landscape into a community. I had read, too, about workers from so many walks of life coming to the city for the chance to join on this project, and the artists had all in order for their arrival. While the verticals all matched, the crosspieces varied with the width of the pedestrian paths. The screws, although invisible in the end, nonetheless had color-coordinated plastic caps. New Yorkers are a tough bunch to please.

Gates to experience

Somehow, at last, all 7,500 gates had the same opening day. The last stage reportedly took under two hours, in fact, starting at precisely 8:30 on a Saturday morning.

So call it a wrap, but even that word is misleading. The Gates did not bundle an edifice, like the Reichstag that the artists had wrapped before, binding and transforming its disturbing associations. It did not bring out or dissolve the arc of the land, as I gather Running Fence did simultaneously to its rolling hills, although it came close in the glory of the park's North Meadow. One thinks of Christo as the wrapster, glibly repeating his one idea in work after work, but he himself hates the thought. He insists that, say, an earlier curtain did not wrap an island but surround it, just as the sea surrounds land. Here, he and Jean-Claude had devised a gateway and not a covering.

In response to Central Park's varied landscape, The Gates nestled comfortably under the tree line. It stood apart from the earth, on those high crossbars, offering choices every which way. One could even choose to depart the twenty-three miles of covered walkways, to cross the grass and mud between. (For comparison, as every runner knows, the main road looping through the park runs 6.1 miles—just under ten kilometers.) I started to imagine the challenge of walking the entire work without doubling back once, as in the "traveling salesman problem," one of those math puzzles better left to computers.

On a blustery, gray afternoon, the pleated nylon billowed upward. Occasionally, as from the castle hill, from the outlook above the Meer by East Harlem, and, far more meekly, from the rooftop of the Met, the color clearly outlined a field. Further south, it half-comically circled twice around a fountain plaza by the lake. More often, from a near distance and in stiller air, it spread like banners. As I passed through the gates, as if along a parade route, I received an uncustomary regal treatment.

As suits New York, along with chaos comes community, and people turned out opening day in droves, especially for the dead of winter. For more than two weeks, it felt as if they never left. I thought how it took Hoving, as parks commissioner and at the Met, to change both Central Park and museums from the contemplative experience that my father once knew. Now, two more entrepreneurs had financed a costly undertaking with drawings and collectibles, like a work of art with its own built-in gift shop. Ironically, too, the Ramble remained ungated—but official park maps note it, along with other paths, in orange.

New Yorkers do not dispense praise easily. I myself find the drawings of little interest. Many others feel more in need of their dependable backyard than a self-imagined wilderness, not even one with room for more than a hundred miles of orange thread. And yet one felt in close touch with The Gates, with its vistas and its materials, even if no one had to bend over to pass onto new experiences. And those who followed the route they had had in mind—or even one that the artists could ever have foreseen—must be stubborn indeed.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"The Gates: 1979–2005," by Christo and Jean-Claude, opened February 12, 2005, and started to come down on February 28. Every trace was gone within another two weeks—except for Central Park itself.

 

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