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Opening the Gates

Christo and Jean-Claude's art project takes Manhattan

Posted: Thursday, March 03, 2005

It took 24 years for New York City to finally approve Christo and Jean-Claude's art project, "The Gates." And the world just had 16 days to see it after it opened on Feb. 12. If you weren't there, it's too late.

Literally the biggest public art project since the Sphinx, the artists explain on their Web site (www.christojeanneclaude.net) that "The Gates was envisioned as a golden ceiling creating warm shadows. When seen from the buildings surrounding Central Park, 'The Gates' would seem like a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees and highlighting the shape of the footpaths."

The artists chose the month of February to launch the project so the bright, saffron gates would be optimized by the angle of the sun's rays and could be more easily seen without being obscured by foliage.

In April of 2002, my husband, Mark, and I met and entertained the artists during their stop in Juneau, as part of a lecture series arranged and sponsored by Anchorage gallery owner and author Julie Decker. "The Christos" were dazzled by the bald eagle acrobatics seen from the deck of our Gastineau Channel home. As a thank you, they mailed us a box of autographed catalogs.

We had long been fans of the artists' work, but after their visit, we felt a more personal connection. After seeing an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum about "The Gates" last summer, we decided to make the pilgrimage to New York City to see it firsthand.

On Feb. 11, the morning after we arrived, we headed into chilly Central Park, fortified by hot coffee. In the pale light, the orange gate poles were a sharply angular contrast to the park's organic shapes and offered no real hints as to how it would look after the unfurling. Even so, there was a palpable sense of transformation about it, much like 7,500 butterflies about to emerge from their cocoons.

On a cold opening day, we were joined by thousands of enthralled visitors as Mayor Bloomberg unfurled the first gate to an enthusiastic ovation. Then 600 workers scattered throughout the park began unsheathing the saffron-colored, pleated curtains that immediately infused the park with their glowing color.

It was an inspiring and profound moment in the history of art, confirmed by one resident who told us, "I'm a typical jaded New Yorker. It takes a lot to impress me. At first I thought, what will these orange things in the park be like? But it's awesome! Amazing!"

During our week-long visit, the weather determined the look of "The Gates." A day of bright sun made the saffron fabric glow as the light slanted through it. An accompanying breeze made that radiance billow like bright, iridescent clouds. Then a day of heavy rain made reflecting pools on the paths echo the glowing color above. Clouds matted the color to a softer shade.

No one spent as much time with "The Gates" as the workers, and one native New Yorker, who had taken a two-week leave of absence from her job to work on the project, remarked that being a part of "The Gates" made her rethink and resee Central Park.

"Be here now," she said. "This is its moment."

Mayor Bloomberg, a patron of the arts and a long-time supporter of the artists, culminated a quarter century of waiting when he announced approval for the project in January of 2003 shortly after taking office. The projected revenue from an estimated half million visitors weighed heavily in this decision. But equally crucial to the approval, the artists' chief design engineer had finally resolved the long-standing dilemma of mounting the project without digging 15,000 holes in Central Park - he discovered vinyl fencing material that could be placed in steel bases to support the 7,500 "gates."

Christo and Jeanne Claude were both born on June 13, 1935 - he in Bulgaria and she in Casablanca, Morocco. Christo began studying art in 1953 at the Academy in Sofia. As a less than ardent follower of Stalinist Bulgaria, he fled to Prague in 1956 and finally wound up in Paris in 1958, where he scratched out a living painting portraits. Christo and Jeanne-Claude met in Paris, when he came to her home to paint her mother's portrait. They have been together ever since.

Christo began wrapping objects as a means of artistic expression in the early 1960s in Paris. He continued in that direction after moving to New York City in 1964. The first building to be entirely wrapped, however, was not in the artist's new home city. It was the Kunsthalle in Berne, Switzerland, in 1968. The success of Christo's public art projects is due either to the artist's abiding patience and natural skills as a communicator or to shameless self promotion - depending on which camp you fall into. Undisputedly, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have clocked countless hours cutting through bureaucracy - 41 formal presentations for "The Gates" project in 1980 alone.

It wasn't until 1994 that the two announced their close collaboration to the world and began referring to themselves as a single artistic entity known as Christo and Jeanne Claude. That same year, the artists completed the project for which they were perhaps best known (until now) - the wrapping of the Reichstag building in Berlin.

Facts about The Gates

• 7,500 gates

• 5,290 tons of steel for 15,000 bases

• 1,067,330 square feet of rip-stop nylon fabric

• Each gate is between 5 feet, 6 inches to 11 feet, 8 inches wide

• Installed along 23 miles of footpaths in Central Park

• 315,491 linear feet of vinyl tube for the poles

• Gate components were purchased from seven manufacturers located on the East Coast

• Weaving and sewing of the fabric panels was done in Germany

• In teams of eight, 600 workers were responsible for installing 100 gates per team

• The monitoring and removal teams included an additional 300 uniformed workers

•Professional security worked in the park after dark to protect "The Gates"

SOURCE: www.christojeanneclaude.net

The project that originally brought them to the world's attention was the surrounding of 11 islands in Florida's Biscayne Bay with bright pink fabric in 1983. Later, the artists overcame 20 years of bureaucracy, ending in 1985, to realize the draped Pont Neuf in Paris. Also noteworthy were the simultaneous opening of 3,000 giant yellow and blue umbrellas in California and Japan in 1991.

Each of these works was at once uniquely simple and incredibly complicated. And as was the case with "The Gates," all temporary - the materials were completely recycled. Adding to the difficulties associated with projects of such scale, the artists accept no sponsorships or donations in order to retain complete control over their work. All projects are financed through the sale of Christo's drawings, not the sale of art event memorabilia. Furthermore, hundreds of people are needed to bring each project to fruition, and all are paid for their work.

The artists were ecstatic to see this day finally come, and that emotion was running rampant throughout our opening-day adventures. One project worker related, "I've never seen so many New Yorkers smiling." Workers became wildly popular when they began handing out 100,000 small samples of the bright nylon fabric used to make "The Gates." Concession stands sold a variety of souvenirs to benefit the conservancy of Central Park.

All of the $21 million spent to mount and dismantle "The Gates" came from the artists - their generous and unforgettable gift to the city they consider home.

It was indeed a spectacular moment for Central Park. And now that "The Gates" are gone? For the hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world who came to see history made, the park is forever a different place - a place we'll always see with our mind's eye as it was aglow with the imperial brilliance of 7,500 saffron gates.



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