It has been more than 25 years in the making, but this past weekend the husband and wife artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude finally unveiled a vast public art project in New York City's Central Park.
It was envisioned as a river of color, enlivening the monochrome gray of Central Park in the depths of winter: 7,500 tall gates of billowing fabric framing the paths of this enormous park. The color of the banners is a bright saffron-orange, the same hue as Christo's wife Jeanne-Claude's own hair.
Interviewed in the park a few days before the exhibit opened, the couple, who both turn 70 this year, said they had no idea how people might respond to the work. “We do not [think about that],” said Jeanne-Claude, “because we create this work of art, of joy and beauty, for us. In that sense, we are like every true artist: create for oneself -- if afterwards somebody else likes it, it's a bonus.”
Christo added, “You should like art to understand. You should enjoy color, proportion, volumes, and movement. It's not difficult. Look there, and you see what is done -- it's like asking what is the message of a Mozart sonata. What is the message? I don't know. You should have the ear to enjoy it -- while this project is a visual art [work].”
Asked whether the color of Jeanne-Claude’s hair had inspired the exhibit’s, she laughed and answered, “No, my hair has been this color since 1986 -- when Christo's hair turned gray, mine turned red!” Her husband explained the reason: “We do the project in winter, because this is the only month where we should have the leafless trees, you can see from very far away The Gates. And in this monochromatic landscape of silvery-gray leafless trees, we love very much that color, and it is very resourceful, with the gray, with the sun, with the snow, and with the rain.”
Visitors on opening day had varying reactions as The Gates were finally unfurled. “It's beautiful,” said a woman from Long Island. “I've been watching them on television opening up this morning, and coming down here, it's just so very pretty!”
Another visitor, a long-time Christo fan, agreed: “It surpasses for me what I was imagining,” she said. “I saw the drawings, and I thought they were extraordinary, but seeing the scale, and how it mimics the terrain of the park, and then the interaction with people, and the light through the fabric as it changes color -- it's just extraordinary.”
But a New York man dissented. “They tried to design something that would conform with the park, and I don’t think they've done that. The color really isn't out of nature. The way they've suggested they were mimicking nature, I don't see it -- the color is simply too bold.”
“It's gorgeous, it's spectacular,” said a woman who’d traveled from California expressly to see The Gates. Her husband agreed, adding, “What amazes me is, why did it take 25 years for the city to decide this was a good idea?”
The Bulgarian-born Christo and French native Jeanne-Claude have lived in New York for 41 years. They first proposed the Central Park Gates in 1979, and made countless presentations to city leaders over the years. But the project was not approved until Michael Bloomberg, a fan of their work, was elected mayor.
Remarking on their long struggle to win approval for the project, Jeanne-Claude said there were moments when they thought it might never happen. “26 years!” she exclaimed, “Yes, there were times-- ” “Critical points--” her husband interjected. “But,” Jeanne-Claude said, “it always remained in our heart.”
As with all their work, the artists paid for the entire $20 million project themselves by selling Christo's drawings -- the smallest goes for $30,000 -- and their more affordable books, as this recent event at New York’s Strand Bookstore, where people lined up for hours to have their books signed by the authors.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude say the only point of their art, which is always temporary, is to create a startling new perception of everyday landscapes.
In their most famous project, in 1995, they wrapped the Reichstag, the German Parliament building in Berlin. Shrouded in silvery fabric, the imposing building had the air of a castle under a spell in a fairy tale. In Paris, they wrapped the Pont Neuf Bridge across the Seine.
The two have said that some of their ideas are Christo’s, while others are conceived by Jeanne-Claude. Which one first thought of The Gates? “Both of us,” said Christo. “We tried to do a work of art that would involve simply people walking [through the park].
Although the couple first began to acknowledge Jeanne-Claude's contribution only ten years ago, they say they have always worked as one. Married for 45 years, Christo and Jeanne-Claude refuse to be apart even for brief interviews, and rarely use any pronoun but "we." Even their conflicts seem something to be cherished in this long marriage.
Asked whether they have artistic disagreements, Christo smiled, and said, “All the time! We are fighting all the time, and actually Albert and David Maysles did so many films about our work, and you can see in these films, we argue and scream.” And Jeanne-Claude added with similar enthusiasm,“ We're screaming at each other!”
But they're never separated. Christo reminds us, “We're together since 1958.”
The Gates will be up for only 16 days, though the work is expected to generate a tourism windfall for New York City in those two weeks. Christo and Jeanne-Claude are already planning their next project, "Over the River," which they hope to mount over a segment of the Arkansas River in 2008 or 2009.