Volume 73, Number 49 | April 7 - 13, 2004



Christo and Jeanne Claude’s long path to ‘Gates’

By JERRY TALLMER

Now the cranes had done their damndest, the mob from the press tour of the exhibit was beginning to dispel, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude, with her flaming red hair, sat, catching their breaths and signing a few catalogues, at a small table in the vast sunlit Engelhart Court of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Outside, even at 11 a.m., it was still extremely cold, thanks to a biting wind, but through the atrium’s huge, west-facing glass curtain wall a few hardy souls could nevertheless be seen striding along the paths of Central Park.

And would “The Gates” — the golden gates of February 2005 — extend over the very stretch of paths before our eyes?

“Yes!” said Jeanne-Claude. “Right there!”

“Yes!” said Christo. “Right there, 9 feet beyond the glass.”

“One of the maps in the exhibit,” Jeanne-Claude said, “covers that area just out there. See that man walking? That stretch right there.”

And what if it snows before or during the February 12 — Lincoln’s birthday 2005 — on which “The Gates” are to start their 16-day reign over the paths of Central Park?

“Beautiful!” said Christo.

“All our projects always have the clause, ‘Weather permitting,’ “ said Jeanne-Claude, his wife and creative partner. She was always the practical one and still is.
We had better get back, for background, to the cranes.

In a scene as if out of a Fellini movie, the cranes were the dozen or so black birds of prey, or microphone booms, that had jutted up and in and down over the hulking shoulders of the horde of TV cameramen who had, in their inimitable fashion, muscled aside all other humanity as the hero and heroine of the occasion made their way, on press day, through the long-overdue exhibit — the project being a mere 24 years overdue — “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Gates, Central Park, New York.”

Curated by Anne L. Strauss of the Met’s Department of Modern Art, the exhibition (at the Met through July 25) is a stimulating, informative documentary history — in photographs, maps, technical diagrams and, especially, drawings and collages by Christo himself — of those 24 years of waiting, from Bulgarian-born, New York-adoring Christo Javacheff’s first proposal of “The Gates for Central Park” (1979), to its cold rejection by the powers that be (1981), to its at-long-last approval (January 22, 2003) by the City Hall of a mayor named Bloomberg.

Shouting to be heard beyond the cameras and cranes, Christo had said, no, “The Gates” had nothing to do with spiritual compensation for September 11, 2001. “We do not build messages,” he said. “We build for beauty . . . I wish to create ‘The Gates’ as a work of art and not a reflection of any national or international event . . . I will never, never do something as a message. I do it because I LIKE to do it.”

He (or maybe it was Jeanne-Claude) called attention to the work at the entrance to the exhibit: a 1979 pencil-charcoal-pastel drawing for the original proposal. Its title: “The Thousand Gates, Project.”

“Now there are to be 7,500 gates,” said he, or she — seven thousand, five hundred 16-foot-high fabric-bearing rectangular metal arches, snaking a golden (well, amber) path for 16 days and nights in February along 23 miles of Central Park.

The photographs in the show bear out, underscore, the slow passage of those 24 years: Christo and Jeanne-Claude meeting with this commissioner, that commissioner, this civic eminence, that civic eminence, this community board, that community board, explaining, explaining, explaining.

“All the 24 years,” said Christo, “THAT is a work of art. When we saw it was impossible to get permission to do this in New York, we took on a new project, ‘Over the River,’ in Colorado. Then a miracle happened. A friend, Michael Bloomberg, got elected mayor of New York.” The Arkansas River in Colorado must wait.

The press asked questions about money, funds, financing. Jeanne-Claude stepped up at bat.

“We do not accept sponsors,” she said. They pay for everything out of their own pocket, on what Christo makes from sales of his stuff around the world. “We wish to work in total freedom . . . Sometimes the money is not enough, and then we have to borrow from banks. But we pay everything back — with interest.”

Somebody asked about the budget for this project.

“We never know the budget in advance,” Jeanne-Claude said. “It is like bringing up a child — it will cost what it will cost. But we are trying to work to keep it under $24 million.”

(They have brought up a child, Cyril, who is now a grown man and a poet.)

Jeanne-Claude had project manager Jolita Davenport step up to tell about the large workforce that will be recruited, and paid, to install, guard and take down the gates. “Eighteen-years-old minimum, no maximum. Must be willing to work very hard, outdoors, for seven or eight days. Minimum wages and one hot meal a day.”

A question from out there beyond the cranes: “Is it possible at this point for your project to fail?”

Jeanne-Claude smiled. “No,” she said. “Not possible. Absolutely impossible. All the engineering has been decided. We know where each gate will be placed. And if we happen to die,” she said, as a sort of throwaway, “it will still happen. There is $20 million in life insurance for that. It will happen, but we will not be here to enjoy it.”

Meanwhile, they are here to enjoy it, and we are here to enjoy them — and their work.

At the little table in the big atrium, after the press showing, Christo, in answer to a dumb journalistic question (mine), said no, this exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum did not “legitimize” “The Gates.”

“What’s good about the exhibit,” he said, “is it can translate the history of the entire process since 1979.”

How had the exhibition come to be?

“We don’t know, really,” said Jeanne-Claude. “You have to ask Anne Strauss.” She beckoned for the curator to come to the table.

“Well,” said Ms. Strauss, “when I read in the New York Times that ‘The Gates’ had been approved, I immediately thought we should do an exhibit here.” She gestured toward the Central Park out beyond that window, the Central Park in which the museum sits.

“I proposed it to my boss, William S. Lieberman [Jacques and Natasha Gelman Chairperson of the Department of Modern Art] and he took the idea to Mr. de Montebello [Philippe de Montebello, director, Metropolitan Museum of Art].

“The perfect locale. It seemed only logical,” said Anne Strauss. From the wrapped Reichstag and Pont Neuf to the “Running Fence” to the Biscayne Islands to the Arkansas River of Colorado, nobody could disagree.

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