Last week, as a group of University of Michigan graduates played touch football in the snow behind New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dan Hennes, 26, eyed a Central Park walkway lined with steel planks and triangular orange markers. Perhaps "they're marking where not to plow?" he asked.
Not quite. Until this week, those planks and markers have been the only tangible evidence the public has had of "The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005," the much-ballyhooed art installation by New York artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude that took 26 years and a reported $20 million to create.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude's art installation, "The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005," will hang for 16 days.
(Sketch by Christo - Reuters)
Starting tomorrow, 600 workers will install 60 miles of vinyl poles to join 15,000 steel bases, creating 7,500 16-foot-tall gates along 23 miles of walkways throughout the park. At the top of the gates, bundled up, will be 1,089,882 square feet of saffron fabric. On Saturday, weather permitting, the cocoons will be opened to reveal fabric panels hanging seven feet above the ground. On Feb. 27, the gates will be removed and the materials recycled.
The world has a mere 16 days to see what all the fuss is about.
Jacquelyn Serwer, chief curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, plans to head to New York once the installation is in place. "I think it's terribly exciting, the idea that an artistic event, a visual event really, that will only last a couple of weeks, is generating this kind of interest," she said. "It demonstrates how porous the boundaries are. . . . It's kind of like a performance. The originality of it, the ephemeral quality, and the fact that Christo and Jeanne-Claude are such international stars make it a very good event."
Some New Yorkers are less sanguine. "I read about it, but I didn't realize that this was the prelude," said Howard Haykin, a Wall Street securities officer, as his wheaten terrier, Lucy, sniffed an orange marker in Central Park last week. "I think it's good to have, but not as a permanent structure, because the park is beautiful as it is."
"The Gates" is free and open to anyone walking through Central Park. It's the latest project from the folks who wrapped Berlin's Reichstag with 1,076,000 square feet of polypropylene fabric and 51,181 feet of blue rope in 1995, and surrounded 11 islands in Miami's Biscayne Bay with 6.5 million square feet of pink fabric in 1983.
The artists first proposed "The Gates" in 1979 but didn't receive a permit until 2003. It's not the longest they've waited to realize a project -- according to their Web site, "Wrapped Trees" in Riehen, Switzerland, took 32 years from start to finish -- but it's their first installation in New York, where they have lived since 1964.
Why stage such a massive outdoor project in gray, chilly weather? "In February the sun is very low in the sky, creating those beautiful long shadows, and when the sun is in back of the nylon fabric panel, the saffron color will become golden yellow," Jeanne-Claude (the artists use only their first names) explained in a telephone interview last week. "The parts of the fabric which are in the shade will be deep red, so it is a very rewarding color . . . a great variety of tonality and hues. All in harmony with the silvery gray of leafless branches."
When the leaves are on the trees, she said, "you don't see all of the buildings surrounding Central Park. But in February you will, [and] see the work of art popping through the leafless branches."
New York tourism officials predict that at least 200,000 visitors will come to the city specifically to see "The Gates," which has been lauded as "a defining moment in our city's cultural history" by Deputy Mayor Patricia E. Harris and dismissed in a recent New York Post editorial as the "Great T.P.-ing of Central Park."
In order to maintain artistic control over their work, the artists do not accept grants or sponsorships, covering all project-related expenses themselves. "Each project is a child of ours, and a father and a mother don't have a budget for a child. We will not not take the child to the doctor because it is not in this week's budget," said Jeanne-Claude. "Until a few weeks ago we hoped we would not spend more than $20 million . . . now we are hoping it won't go above $21 million."
Their method for coming up with that kind of money, which includes $3 million for the use of Central Park? "We sell everything we have, except our son," meaning preparatory sketches, paintings and other works signed by Christo. Selling everything doesn't extend to merchandise: While retaining aesthetic and quality control of products related to their projects, they derive no income from them. Proceeds from "Gates" materials, for example, will go to the nonprofit Nurture New York's Nature, which supports urban ecology awareness projects.
Where to next? "If we don't owe any money . . . we're going to Colorado in August," Jeanne-Claude said. Once a permit is secured, that project, on the Arkansas River, will take at least two years to complete, she said.
HOW TO SEE "THE GATES": "The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005," runs Feb. 12-27 on 23 miles (out of 58) of pedestrian walkways in Central Park. The park is free, and suggested hours are dawn to 1 a.m.; those visiting after dark should exercise caution. Self-guided-tour information sheets and other material is available at visitor centers throughout the park.
Walking tours are offered by several companies, including Big Onion (Feb. 20 and 26, $12, 212-439-1090, www.bigonion.com) and Joyce Gold History Tours (Feb. 12, 19 and 27, $12, 212-242-5762, www.nyctours.com). The nonprofit Central Park Conservancy offers customized group walking tours (prices vary, 212-360-2726, www.centralparknyc.org). Limited hop-on/hop-off trolley service leaves from 60th Street and Fifth Avenue and makes a complete circuit of the park ($20, tickets available only at meeting point).
For an elevated view, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will open its rooftop garden for the duration of the installation (free with museum admission, through Feb. 27, closed Feb. 14; 212-535-7710, www.metmuseum.org).
"The Gates" can also be seen from the street; try taking a public bus down Fifth Avenue on the East Side or along Central Park West ($2).
CENTRAL PARK IN FEBRUARY: Skate at Wollman Rink ($8.50-$11, plus skate rental; 212-439-6900, www.wollmanskatingrink.com), try the climbing wall at the North Meadow Recreation Center ($5, 212-348-4867, www.centralparknyc.org) and celebrate Black History Month with storytelling at the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center (free, Feb. 26-27; 212-860-1370, www.centralparknyc.org). Kids can explore Belvedere Castle (free, 212-772-0210, www.centralparknyc.org) and visit the Central Park Zoo ($6, 212-439-6500, www.nyzoosandaquarium.com).
"GATES"-RELATED ACTIVITIES: Christo and Jeanne-Claude's official photographer, Wolfgang Volz, is showing "ManMade Planet" at the Chelsea Art Museum ($6, through March 1 at 556 W. 22nd St., 212-255-0719, www.chelseaartmuseum.org). Galerie at Hermès screens several works by Albert Maysles, who has filmed the artists for more than 30 years (through Feb. 27 at 691 Madison Ave., 212-835-6444). The International Association of Art Critics hosts the "Christo and Jeanne-Claude Effect" symposium with panel discussions and screenings at the Guggenheim Museum ($25, Feb. 25 at 1071 Fifth Ave.; reservations required, www.aicausa.org).
PACKAGES: NYC & Co., the city's tourism board, has an extensive list of packages offered for the duration of the installation. For example, at press time, a room at the Hotel Plaza Athenee (212-734-9100, www.plaza-athenee.com), one block from Central Park, started at $369 per person double, including a "Gates"-inspired prix fixe lunch. Between Feb. 10 and Feb. 28, Next Stop New York (800-434-7554, www.nextstopnewyork.com/GATES) offers three nights at the Surrey, two tickets to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and two for the Museum of Modern Art, for $395 per person double.
INFO: Christo and Jeanne-Claude: www.christojeanneclaude.net. Central Park Conservancy: 212-310-6600, www.centralparknyc.org. NYC & Co., 212-484-1200, www.nycvisit.com.
Anne McDonough will be online to discuss this story at 2 p.m. Monday during the Travel section's weekly online forum at www.washingtonpost.com