Volume 74, Number 40 | February 9 - 15, 2005

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s saffron dream made real

Photo by Wolfgang Volz/Laif/Redux, courtesy NYC Parks Department
Christo and Jeanne-Claude examined the progress of the work for the 7,500 gates.

By JERRY TALLMER

Four-year-old Cyril liked to climb on rocks.

“Every day of his childhood since he was 4,” says his mother, “I would go on the subway with this little boy from Canal Street to Central Park, where he would climb on the rocks. The big rocks.

“Not today,” she appends with a giggle. “Today he’s 44, and a poet, and a writer, and if you say that Cyril Christo and his wife Marie Wilkinson have just had a 2-foot-tall book called ‘Lost Africa’ published by Assouline, they will be very happy.”

So, of course, will be the flame-haired lady known to the world just as Jeanne-Claude, and if you pronounce that Jawn rather than Jen — better yet, Jennnne — you’re in trouble. Big trouble. Jeanne-Claude, Cyril’s mother, Christo’s wife and creative partner in everything, both in life and art, is a stickler for accuracy down to the last dot on the last “I.”

If the sun comes up golden this coming Saturday morning, February 12, 2005, Abraham Lincoln’s 196th birthday — if there is no rain or snow or locusts — a supplementary gold will burst over all the walkways of Central Park from 59th Street to 110th Street, Fifth Avenue to Central Park West.

“The Gates” will be open.

All right, Jeanne-Claude — not gold but saffron. “From the first drawing on the first day in 1979 it was saffron,” she specifies, “but then it was a more timid saffron.”

What happens to a dream deferred, Langston Hughes once asked in a different context. In this context, “The Gates, Central Park, New York City,” a dream deferred for 26 years, is now here, a reality. A 16-day reality. On February 27, rain or shine or squirrels, “The Gates” come down.

Did Christo and Jeanne-Claude over all those years ever say to themselves: “This thing is not going to happen?”
“Never!” she says. “In our lives so far, we have completed 18 [major] projects, and have had 37 failures.” By failures, she means rejections, refusals. “Projects, ideas, that came out of our two hearts and two heads. The Reichstag [wrapped 1995] was refused three times over 25 years. With the Pont Neuf [wrapped 1988], Jacques Chirac kept evading us.

“Once refused, we work on. New York refused us only once, in 1981, but it stayed in our heads and we never applied ever again.”

They happened to have had a friend named Michael Bloomberg who was elected mayor in 2001, on the heels of 9/11.

“Mr. Bloomberg had his inaugural in January [2002]. I told Christo: Leave him alone until June, because he’s just inherited a disaster in New York. Then in March, Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris called and said: ‘May I pay you two a visit in your home, and may I bring along Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe?’

“Wait! Wait!” exclaims Jeanne-Claude to a journalist taking notes over the phone. “She also brought along Mr. Douglas Blonsky, the commissioner of Central Park, who said: ‘Let’s see what your idea consists of.’ The result? A 43-page contract between New York City and us.”

What you’re reading had to be the product of an interview by phone because, Jeanne-Claude had said, pleaded, a few days earlier: “We work 21 hours a day and sleep three hours a day, if we sleep. So be my friend, Jerry, and call me, but never before 10:30 in the morning.”

Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, the daughter of a French general in World War II, and Christo Javacheff, the Bulgarian-born artist and wrapper of paint cans who’d come to her and her parents’ house in Paris to paint her portrait, left for the United States as husband and wife in 1964.

Like everybody else, they were, in her words, “very impressed with the skyline and tall buildings of New York City,” and soon after they’d wrapped the Kunsthalle in Bern, Switzerland, in 1968, they proposed doing the same to the owners of two Lower Manhattan buildings, 20 Exchange Place and 2 Broadway, and also, later, No. 1 Times Square, all of whom, or which, “thought we were nuts.” So did the managements of two other proposals: the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum.

It was when Christo and Jeanne-Claude were far away from New York — in Australia for “Wrapped Coast,” 1969, Colorado for “Valley Curtain,” 1972, Northern California for “Running Fence,” 1976 — that they more and more “looked back from these faraway places and thought of New York and the people of New York, the most-walked city in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people all walking every day.”

What to do to glorify that?

“For a brief moment we thought of using the sidewalk, doing something with the sidewalks, but we realized we’d never get permission. But there was one place where people walked leisurely in New York — unless they were 4-year-old climbers of rocks — and that was Central Park. In 1979, that was the only park in New York City we knew.”

In 1858, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux set to work laying out a vast central greenery that would have steel gates at each of its entrances. The steel gates had disappeared by the time the park opened in 1861, but the name lives on.

“Christo’s very first drawing in 1979,” says his wife with her laugh, “was called ‘The Thousand Gates.’ ”

Now, these 26 years later, there are 7,500 gates, square arches, not 12 feet tall, as in the 1979 plan, but 16 feet tall, with saffron fabric that will be billowing in the wind against the silhouettes of February’s bare branches throughout the park. Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

“The poles in 1979 were thin, skinny steel rods. Today they are thick and sculptured — 5-x-5 inches square in cross-section — and not steel, but vinyl. At the top the fabric was hooked onto steel cables as elegant as shower curtains,” she declares with a trace of irony. Today the fabric is contained in cocoons (or “sail tunnels”), attached to the upper horizontal poles, and it is the content of these cocoons that will be released with a swoosh! or a series of swooshes throughout the park starting 8:45 a.m. this Saturday, weather permitting.

In charge of this massive operation, and all the immediate years of preparation and testing for it, was and is Vince Davenport, chief project engineer and director of construction, in tandem with his wife, project director Jonita Davenport.

“She’s the one who recruited our 600 workers, and,” says Jeanne-Claude, “our workers are the best of any in the world.”

They get paid, and they get one hot meal a day, all of which comes out of Mr. and Mrs. Christo’s pockets. Every penny of every project these two have ever done, millions of dollars of it, comes out of what has been earned from the ongoing worldwide sale of Christo’s drawings, books, scale models, etc.

So, good people, dear artists, how do you feel right now? Is it too romantic, too sentimental, to call this, however long deferred, a dream come true?

“No,” said Jeanne-Claude, “it is not too romantic. We wake up and look at each other and ask: Is it really happening?”

Yes, it is.

As good a place as any from which to view “The Gates,” apart from walking through them, is from the Roof Garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, open from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., every day from February 12 through February 27 (except for Monday, February 14), access free with museum admission.

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