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Curtain Call

With 'The Gates,' Christo and Jeanne-Claude Can Finally Call Central Park a Wrap

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2005; Page C01


The artist Christo cannot speak at the moment. Not now. Not to us or anyone else who has faxed an interview request to the home he shares with Jeanne-Claude, his French and formidable wife and collaborator. A visit to their place in SoHo? Out of the question. A quick how-do-you-do on the phone? Mais non.

"Christo this instant just came down from the studio, and he's in the kitchen peeling a clove of garlic," Jeanne-Claude says in her heavy Parisian accent. A quick break for a pungent snack -- the guy eats a whole head of garlic every day -- is all the time he can spare. Lately he's been kind of busy.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, his wife and collaborator, will unfurl their latest fabric-based artwork, "The Gates: Central Park, New York, 1979-2005," on Saturday. (Wolfgang Volz - The City Of New York Via AP)

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On Saturday, if all goes as planned, he and Jeanne-Claude, plus a phalanx of workers and the city of New York will unveil the latest whimsical epic in the couple's four-decade career.

For 15 days Central Park will billow with mile after mile of saffron-colored fabric, all of it hanging from 7,500 gates, each about 16 feet high and at least 5 1/2 feet wide. For weeks, construction teams have been installing the bases and posts that will zigzag through a marathon of pathways in the park, each gate about 12 feet from the next. At the appointed hour on Saturday, workers will tug at a little catch near the top of every gate and the fabric, now tucked high up under each crossbar, will unfurl and begin to flap in the wind.

In full bloom, "The Gates: Central Park, New York, 1979-2005," as the project is officially known, will have a biblical, wonder-of-the-world quality, and the city expects it to draw 200,000 tourists. For Christo and Jeanne-Claude -- they don't use last names -- it will be the sublime spectacle that they have dreamed about and schemed over for more than 25 years. The pair have been pleading with the park's overseers, the city government and assorted naysayers since 1979, when they conceived the idea.

"They are relentless, in the best New York City way," explains Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, who says an arts-friendly mayor and vast improvements to Central Park changed the necessary minds.

New York magazine called it the grandest public artwork since the Sphinx. But, as Jeanne-Claude explains, "the Gates" was never about pleasing the public.

"We create for us," she says. "We don't create for the public. But, of course, those who like it, that's a bonus for us. It's very much like a father and mother walking down the street holding the hand of their little boy and someone stops them and says, 'What a beautiful little child.' Mom and Dad are very happy, but you know they didn't make that child for another person. It's only a bonus."

You've got to have guts to drape a million square feet of ripstop nylon in the verdant middle of Manhattan and then describe the public's approbation as "a bonus." Nobody, however, has ever accused Christo and Jeanne-Claude of lacking nerve. Born on the same day in 1935 -- he in Bulgaria, she in Morocco -- the two have chopped a gloriously eccentric trail through the art world and into the mainstream of pop culture. Together they have one son, but he easily has the lowest profile of their productions.

In 1995, the couple wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin in a million square feet of polypropylene fabric. They planted 3,100 umbrellas in California and Japan. They ran a luminous fence through 24 miles of California, ending in the Pacific Ocean. They surrounded a bunch of islands off Florida with 6 1/2 million square feet of floating pink fabric.

These people think big. And as with all their previous efforts, they are underwriting the entire $20 million cost of material and labor. For years, Christo has been producing mixed-media collages and preparatory drawings of "the Gates," which Jeanne-Claude then sold to collectors, most of them Europeans, for kingly sums. The small ones are 8 by 11 inches and fetch $30,000. The big ones are eight feet long and go for $600,000.

The guy is basically a mint, spending what he earns from art small enough to fit in a living room to fund art big enough to see from a satellite. In recent months, the mint has been working 17-hour days.

"But those beautiful days are over," says Jeanne-Claude. "Now it's 20 hours a day."

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