Few contemporary artists have achieved the long-running fame of the New York artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Their audacious collaborations — often years in the making and constructed on a massive scale — have captured the public imagination. Such projects as the wrapping of the Reichstag and Pont Neuf in Europe, or the erection of the Valley Curtain and the Running Fence in the American West, have produced startling images of the familiar transformed. The most recent Christo and Jeanne-Claude installation, the Gates in Central Park, inspired legions of globe-trotting fans to descend on New York in mid-winter to witness the spectacle of 7,500 bright nylon panels suspended above 25 miles of paths. After years of planning, the entire installation was in place for a mere sixteen days. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin joined the migration, and he’s here with his reactions.
If there was ever a body of work designed to be almost critic-proof, it is the extravagant and spectacular environmental interventions of Christo and his collaborator, Jeanne-Claude. It is almost impossible to separate the artworks themselves — the wrapped buildings and coastlines, the fences and umbrellas — from the often years-long process of controversy and negotiations that invariably precedes them, a process which itself is obsessively documented by the artists. It is even harder to ignore the often rapturous public response which the works inspire, instantly transforming the locales where the pieces are installed into temporary art shrines, complete with hordes of acolytes and camp followers. The artists’ Robin Hood approach to the funding of their artworks, in which the wealth of the few supports the art experience of the many, has made them something of secular saints, and the integrity of their approach is unimpeachable.
With the "Gates," an immense array of orange fabric suspended from boxy frames, not only were all of these factors present, they were magnified and intensified by the New York City setting, where even ordinary events can take on the aura of hyperbole. The struggle to gain approval for the project, spanning twenty-five years, was especially epic; the statistics of how big, how long, and how expensive were especially staggering, the crowds flocking to see a public artwork, unprecedented.
And such happy crowds! No one could be unmoved by the unfamiliar sight of New Yorkers crowding the usually-deserted midwinter park, or the eagerness with which they meandered on foot, trolley, bike and even horseback, sharing their enthusiasm with total strangers, eyes uplifted to the billowing orange cloth, smiling. And then, there were the legions of non-natives, drawn to New York for the experience, babbling excitedly in the tongues of far-away lands.
To focus merely on the "Gates" as objects is a bit like reviewing an opera by only talking about the sets. There is a crucial difference, however: in the case of the "Gates," the set is what the whole thing is supposed to be about — the long run-up and cast of thousands notwithstanding.
For this visiting critic, both the viewing conditions and the social atmosphere in the park itself were ideal. I toured the park on four separate occasions, and saw the "Gates" both nearly bereft of spectators and surrounded by enormous, cheerful throngs. The weather was exactly as visualized by the artists, cold and grey for several visits, but bright and breezy otherwise, with a fresh coating of snow, which, combined with the bare trees and towering skyline, set the "Gates" off to maximum effect.
I approached the "Gates" inclined in advance to be enthusiastic. Like most people, I knew of the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude only second-hand, through the books, press coverage, and documentaries. I was impressed by many of the works, particularly the "Running Fence" from 1976: I liked the way its rippling white ribbon traced out the stark contours of the rolling, Northern California landscape, and the dramatic, final moment where the fence dove directly into the sea. Equally striking were the dramatic transformations of wrapped buildings, especially the Reichstag in Berlin.
I was also engaged by the beautiful preparatory drawings for the installation in New York, copies of which have been widely reproduced for many years.
So predisposed, I was disappointed by my first encounter with the actual "Gates" at the near end of Central Park, just past midtown. Seen in isolation, an individual gate seemed rather drab and awkward as an object, its orange plastic tubing reminiscent of lawn furniture or traffic cones; its square of coarsely textured nylon fabric hanging down listlessly, like a shower curtain, or drying laundry. On an overcast day with no breeze to set the fabric in motion, the "Gates" seemed suggestive of nothing more uplifting than a construction fence, adding nothing more to the landscape than brightly-colored visual clutter.
Of course, my impression changed on subsequent trips. In Christo’s drawings, the "Gates" are always depicted backlit by the sun and lifted by the wind, and once I saw them that way, I understood why. The same fabric that seemed dull and industrial when the day was cloudy seemed to almost catch fire in the sun, and the heavy, pleated cloth filled out like a sail in even a very light wind, leading the eye to the next gate in line. Since there were so many thousands of gates, ranked along nearby paths within easy view, it was literally possible to track the progress of a breeze as it filled first one set of gates, then another, its linear movement a visible calligraphy of waving cloth moving through the park.
There were many other moments of visual uplift and discovery to be had while wandering the "Gates" — the reflections of all that orange (the artists insist it be called only “saffron”) in the melting snow; the colored shadows, filtered by the bright fabric on the asphalt sidewalks; the distant lines of fabric, seen in nearly every direction like the route of some festival parade; the sense of occasion, and formal progression, walking in a group of strangers underneath so many curtains in a row, their hems overlapping, a wall of orange almost as far as the eye could see.
And yet, I never lost the sense that it wasn’t enough, somehow. It wasn’t just that the moments of spectacle were far outnumbered by the moments when the effect seemed more random than arranged, more visually chaotic than visually connected. It wasn’t just that the "Gates" worked mainly when lighting and wind and topographical conditions were aligned just right, like a movie star with only one good angle. And it wasn’t simply my consciousness of all the resources and effort that had been moved to create this short-lived spectacle.
The implicit message in the enormous public undertakings of Christo and Jeanne-Claude is a promise of an art encounter of far greater impact than a mere walk through a gallery or museum, one which is often described in the language of astronauts looking down from space, or adherents of Eastern religion — uplifting, transforming, mind-altering. As I wandered through the orange-draped paths of Central Park, I found myself awaiting that sort of artistic rush with the impatience of a marijuana smoker taking that first long toke — and feeling cheated somehow, when that moment never came.
Eschewing as they do any moral, political, or intellectual program for their works other than the magic of the experience itself, Christo and Jeanne-Claude can seem like Pied Pipers to nowhere when that experience proves less than transforming. Upright, defiantly separate, and too often merely prosaic, the thousands of "Gates" were not really an improvement over the already existing work of art they were meant to enhance — Central Park itself. The saga of the Gates is ultimately more a cautionary tale of the dangers of artistic hubris and obsession, than of triumph over adversity. That the installation was so short-lived turns out to be to everyone’s advantage. The "Gates" look better in drawings and photographs than they did on location, and the depicted "Gates," not the real ones, will be what people remember.