NEW YORK, Feb. 12 -- They're way, way better than the pandas, pigs, cows and other fiberglass tchotchkes that have "decorated" our cities over the past decade.
But it's only a difference of quality, not kind.
Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, opening "The Gates" in New York.
(Richard Drew -- AP)
The 7,500 fabric "gates" unfurled Saturday in Central Park, courtesy of local artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, are charming bits of civic ornament. They're drawing New Yorkers out in crowds to stroll among and under them, and should continue to do so for the two weeks that they're up. But as a work of outdoor art, in competition with the best of Bernini or even Henry Moore -- and especially compared with some of the couple's earlier projects -- they're unusually slight. It's amazing how small the artistic return can be on a piece that fills 850 acres in the middle of one of the world's great cities and looks set to cost $21 million before it's done. (But then, that's only one-fifth what has been paid for a mediocre Picasso, so maybe that return is about right.)
"The Gates: Central Park, New York, 1979-2005," as the project is called, consists of thousands of orange PVC arches, like giant cricket wickets, that reach about 16 feet up. They span 23 miles of pathways, filling nearly every corner of the park from the Plaza Hotel right up to Harlem. One gate springs up every dozen feet or so, and a panel of pleated orange nylon hangs down from its crossbar to just above head height.
It's very pleasant to walk through the park and watch as the sun bounces off the sparkling fabric or shines through it. The wind sometimes stirs up impressive nautical effects. A field of orange specks processing to the far horizon makes for some grand, intensely photogenic vistas. On the morning of the unfurling, the vibe was great as well, as families came out to take the air and take in the latest oddity on show in their town.
Overall, the event reminded me of a festive parade of flags, such as towns put on to mark important civic holidays. Or of a tall ships' day, or a kite festival, or some newfangled kind of daytime fireworks display. Or, best of all, it reminded me of how nice it feels at Christmastime when lighted garlands stretch out across downtown streets. What it didn't remind me of, much, is the kind of puzzling, complex, probing experience we're supposed to get from significant art.
From what I can tell, older projects by Christo and Jeanne-Claude -- they've jettisoned last names -- had more of those profound effects.
Their "Running Fence" from 1976 consisted of a white fabric wall, 18 feet high, that crossed 24 miles of rolling California landscape. It seemed to talk about the fencing of the West; about the American Dream's obsession with open space; about competition between man and nature. Set where very few would ever get to see it, the "Fence" had the grandeur of a splendid folly, on the order of Mount Rushmore or of Land Art projects such as Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" in Great Salt Lake or Michael Heizer's bulldozed landscapes in remote Nevada.
In "Wrapped Reichstag," completed in Berlin in 1995, Christo and Jeanne-Claude took a vexed symbol of the German state and obscured it inside a cocoon of silvered polypropylene. There was, obviously, a muffling of the past involved. But also the anticipation of a butterfly moment when the parliament building -- and by extension the newly unified nation -- would come out of its shell again.
I haven't been able to find any similar leverage that the gates might have on the site or times they inhabit.
There's not much tension between nature and man-made in this project, since Central Park is about as unnatural a bit of landscape as you could ever come across. The artists' gates just add an extra bit of decorative artifice to spaces that are pretty artificial, and decorative, anyway.
The project encourages New Yorkers to come out and socialize -- but so does any decently sunny Sunday.
I can't see any lack that the gates fill in Central Park. They just turn up the volume a bit. (As though that's something New York needs.)
The truth is, by New York standards the gates are even a touch dull. Watching families promenade, you realized that after a minute or two of oohs and aahs, they switched back to their previous, more compelling subjects of conversation. ("Chloe, I've had about enough of your attitude." "I don't haaaaave an aaaattiTUDE.") After decades living in New York, Christo and Jeanne-Claude should know how much it takes to get a rise out of Manhattanites. It takes more than an orange schmatte or two.
(Oddly, this time the bland finished project looks like a 3-D illustration of the piles of equally genteel drawings that Christo made to pay for it. In the past, it was the drawings that seemed like watered-down versions of the more complex, finished projects.)
As for the idea that the gates might speak to the times we live in -- you can just about make that notion work, but it's a stretch.
The gates are often said to be a classic "saffron" color, but to my eyes that's a much warmer, more flamboyant hue than what's now hanging in Central Park -- "saffron" ought to be the color of paella at midnight in Valencia or of the robes on an Eastern divine. Central Park's PVC archways, it seems to me, are an almost perfect, very modern, slightly pinkish "hazard orange."
(I had the chance to match a gate against a nearby piece of public-works equipment, and the tints were uncannily close.)
If these gates evoke current affairs, an "orange alert" is the only thing that springs to mind. (The news helicopters hovering above the project on its opening day contributed to the post 9/11 feel, which may dissipate once they are gone.) But overall, "The Gates: Central Park" is so clearly about lighthearted civic celebration that, as I said, it's quite a stretch to give it topicality in our troubled times.
There is an era in which the gates seem to belong, but that's three decades back. They remind me of a certain kind of celebratory public sculpture that you could see in the 1970s, and that represented a kind of last-gasp moment in grand modernist abstraction. Imagine huge sheets and beams of brightly enameled steel, set down in public plazas everywhere, and you'll get the feel I mean. Postwar optimism still hung on in this art, mingled with a bit of flower-power energy: It was the Mary Quant moment in public sculpture, and it didn't last. Of course, as the full title of the Central Park project indicates, that's about when the gates were first conceived. The only reason they're up now is that it took 30 more years of lobbying to get them approved.
It strikes me as passing strange than any artist would imagine that a piece that might have been a good idea at one moment would still matter just as much half a career later. When the "Gates" project was first proposed, New York was near bankruptcy, the middle class had fled and the filthy walkways of Central Park were where you went for a good mugging. The idea of using cheery orange fabric to lure strollers up to Harlem Meer had all the ludicrous energy of a bedsheet strung up across the West. Now, with Meer-view condos going for a few million bucks, the artists' gates just seem like the latest thing in bourgeois beautification. (Crate & Barrel must be due to launch a home-and-garden version any day.)
Actually, there's one other era that the gates brought to mind. In one of those strange eureka moments that sometimes comes when you're looking at art, I realized that all that deeply pleated orange fabric, coming partway down its two supporting poles, reminded me of the deeply pleated, below-the-knee skirts the well-dressed woman wore in 1950s middle America. Images of Julianne Moore in "Far From Heaven" came pouring in, and I found myself feeling a bit sheepish as I walked between some of those 15,000 legs and under all those flicking hems. Needless to say, I stopped looking up. I did, however, think back to the day before, to a stroll along Lexington Avenue and to the revival of just those same pleated styles in women's stores along the way.
Somehow, despite seemingly unending war and nuclear-armed tyrants and gaping social safety nets, we've decided that it's time to revive the look and feel of America at its most buttoned-down. And Christo and Jeanne-Claude have managed to channel our complacent retrospection.
Or maybe it does not have much to do with them at all. After all, it was New York's corporate mayor, and the gentry that he leads, who decided that the time at last had come to fill the park with elegant day wear.