TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 2005

ON SITE

The Gates

AT THE TIME of this writing, workers are slowly making their way along some twenty-three miles of Central Park pathway, dismantling the 7,503 orange structures that only a few weeks earlier had sprouted into the most elaborate and talked-about artwork in New York City history, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s monumental sculpture, The Gates.

Even before the final arch is removed, it’s clear that the project will be remembered as a genuine cultural phenomenon, an uncanny hiatus in New York’s life as usual. The most expertly blasé city in the world spent the better part of February swooning over the artists and their enterprise, mesmerized by the magic of its outsize ambitions and gargantuan deployment of materiel. Indeed, the arrival of The Gates was trumpeted by a characteristically art-averse mainstream media—which devoted an unprecedented amount of airtime and column inches to covering every imaginable piece of minutiae related to the project—with a litany of jaw-dropping facts and figures sure to get even the most mild-mannered civil engineer hot: over 5,000 tons of steel for the gates’ footings (10,580,000 pounds, to be exact, two-thirds the amount in the Eiffel Tower); 315,491 linear feet (60 miles) of vinyl tubing for their superstructures; 165,132 bolts and self-locking nuts; 116,389 miles of nylon thread woven into 1,067,330 square feet of rip-stop fabric and tailored into 7,500-odd fabric panels of varying widths; etc.

The inspiration for this massive project, according to the artists, was Fredrick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux’s original plans for Central Park, which included a series of functional gates designed to secure the space at night. In practice, The Gates turned out to be a curiously hypertrophic mode of Plop art, a colossal modular sculpture whose hulking forms seemed parachuted into place. With only the most rudimentary cartographic interest in its surrounding environment, the work’s blocky silhouettes and alien-industrial color scheme produced an overall sense of purposeless dissonance that even the occasional moments of fleeting lambency, when sunlight met flapping nylon, could never fully dispel. (Considered in terms of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s own career, The Gates was probably most closely related to The Umbrellas, 1984–91, another array of slightly inexplicable objects situated to visually unify a large-scale spatial environment.)

Yet if the constituent forms of The Gates owed a debt to familiar modes of modernist sculpture, their attitude toward landscape evoked a much older example—namely, the early era of European garden design and its vogue for follies, or fabriques, idiosyncratic sculptural elements distributed throughout estate lands to create visual variety and picturesque vistas for both those traversing the terrain and those viewing it at a distance. Like these precedents—often faux-classical ruins reflecting the then-prevalent Romantic taste for antique forms—The Gates also accessed a certain nostalgia, a wistfulness for a time when public art made no pretense of contextual response but was instead simply considered decoration, before theories of site specificity began to encourage substantive conversation between objects and the places they are put.

This isn’t inherently a bad thing. There is a growing and probably healthy debate within the public-art community about whether the rhetoric around the socio-aesthetic qualities of “site” has become so prescriptive as to be meaningless. Yet there was no escaping the sense that The Gates represented a missed opportunity, a certain failure of imagination. Without the confrontational power of a work like Iron Curtain, Wall of Oil Barrels, 1961–62, which showed the artists thinking critically about the urban grid and its relationship to social dynamics, or the poetic resonance of Wrapped Reichstag, 1971–95, which engaged a host of complex historical resonances at a moment of vivid political flux, The Gates was a disappointingly primitive intervention, an underwhelming aesthetic payoff on a quarter century of preparation.

Not that any of this mattered a whit to the audience. Despite (or perhaps precisely because of) The Gates’s relatively anodyne character, rapturous crowds poured into the park daily to see the work during its sixteen-day lifespan. This, of course, was both the goal and the great achievement of the project: its demonstration of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s unparalleled ability to produce things of such grand physical and social scale that they transcend their own relatively undistinguished formal nature to become spectacles, happenings whose quantitative force overwhelms their qualitative weaknesses. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art is located not so much in the products of bureaucratic proficiency but rather in that proficiency itself, a brilliant public exhibition of administrative skill that makes the works themselves subsidiary to the organizational activity involved in their creation. In this way, they not only transcend their own character but also confound the boundaries between the sorts of traditional categories—those various extra-institutional practices including traditional public art; new-genre public art, with its emphasis on process and social dialogue; Land art; and so on—to which they most obviously belong.

Just as their art is indivisible from the processes that produce it, so too are Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s personalities inseparable from their mode of working. Indeed, they are required to be the stars of their own productions, ever engaged in fighting the good fight against overwhelming odds in order to bring “joy and beauty” to the world. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they are artistes straight out of central casting—eccentric, doggedly monomaniacal, speaking of themselves and their work in terms that freely mingle the heroic and the heretical. At times veering close to parody—a bio says the two were born seventy years ago at the same time on the same day—their reflexive self-mythologizing is rich with pronouncements about the glories of artistic autonomy. (“I often say, ‘Our work is a scream of freedom,’” Christo ventures on the duo’s charmingly wacky website, christojeanneclaude.net.)

At the same time that they project an image of protean creative spirit, the couple also take great pains to distinguish themselves from the way other artists operate. In certain respects, they are quite right to do so. After all, they are genuine trailblazers, particularly in the way they utilize the proceeds from the sales of Christo’s beautiful preparatory drawings (they are their own dealers) to support the often-decades-long development of public projects whose size and logistical complexity are almost without precedent. The Gates represented nothing less than an apotheosis of their approach. Notwithstanding the colossal statistics associated with The Gates’s equipment, the project’s two most potent numbers were arguably twenty-six and twenty-one: the twenty-six years Christo and Jeanne-Claude waited to win the city’s approval and the estimated twenty-one million dollars of their own money they reportedly spent on the project’s execution. These facts make up the deeply effective one-two punch of the pair’s signature pitch: a heady cocktail of creative and fiscal dedication that utterly recasts the relationship between public artists and the mechanisms they must typically navigate in order to realize their endeavors.

Rightly leery of the elaborate administrative systems of most public-art programs, Christo and Jeanne-Claude simply circumvent them, bringing a roadshow—here involving millions of dollars in independent funding and about a thousand of their own employees involved in various aspects of the project—that literally overwhelms a city’s own bureaucracy, effectively turning it into a junior partner that can do little more than express gratitude for the couple’s gift. No less canny is the way they counteract public doubt by playing directly to people’s suspicions about artists, particularly those who work in public spaces. Christo and Jeanne-Claude—never to be confused with those who sponge off public funds because their ridiculous schemes simply couldn’t succeed in a free-market environment—put questions of economic self-sufficiency at the very heart of what they do. This technique was ever present in the mantra that, instead of costing New York money, the piece would in fact benefit the metropolis through tourist dollars (a post-Gates Bloomberg-administration press release asserted that the project ended up generating no less than a quarter-billion dollars of economic activity); in the unapologetic tchotchke stands at park entrances where crowds queued to buy Gates-related geegaws; and particularly in Christo and Jean-Claude’s donation of the millions of dollars in proceeds from these sales to local nature charities, a gesture whose genuine bigheartedness was dimmed only by the ostentation with which it was endlessly hammered home. (It will be interesting to see how this influences attitudes toward funding in the future—what its effect will be on those who simply can’t subsidize their own public work, not to mention those who argue that our civic character is actually improved when the government actively contributes to the support of culture.)

In the end, my most vivid and lingering memories of The Gates will reside at the intersection of economics and ideology, where Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s inversion of the questions around public funding for culture also managed to preempt so many of the “Is it art?” arguments that accompany even the most modest of public projects. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise. After all, questions about what art is are always really about the bottom line, about a kind of cost-benefit analysis—one the artists obviated here by offering unambiguous evidence that their work would make no financial demands whatsoever (a friend compared it to endowing a wing at a major museum and then hanging your own watercolors there). Though they have thrived for four decades now, perhaps Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s time has truly come here in our American twenty-first century: In the same way that the first generation of Land artists, with whom they share a certain conceptual impulse and style, found real traction in the antiauthoritarian, anticommercial social moment of the 1960s, the individualistic art-making machine that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have developed and refined over the course of their career has clear affinities with the libertarian free-market impulses of our contemporary politics. Like all their work, The Gates represented a wager (their biggest yet) that the most popular public art will necessarily be the product of private enterprise. In this pay-to-play time, it was a sucker’s bet, and one they won convincingly.

Jeffrey Kastner is a New York–based critic.