New York’s Central Park was the site of a large art installation for 16 days in early 2005. Most often simply referred to as The Gates Christo and Jeanne-Claude‘s brief, colorful enhancement of the historic park sparked a considerable amount of controversy. 7,503 gates, 16 feet tall, sized to fit 25 different widths of walkway throughout the park and consisting of free-hanging saffron (orange) colored fabric panels hanging to approximately 7 feet above the ground were spaced 12 feet apart. Twenty-six years in the planning and approval process The Gates at Central Park installation was completed on February 12th.
Removal of the installation began on February 28th and was completed on March 11, 2005.
While everyone from Fox News to the Washington Post tried their hand at analyzing the installation to decree whether or not it was “art” and if so “good art” or “bad art,” New York residents and visitors turned out in droves to walk beneath the flowing fabric.
Much of the discussion concerned:
• the reputation of the artists best known for wrapping buildings and other large objects, including islands and coastlines in fabric
• the long term impact on Central Park—none, all structures were free standing and completely removed
• the materials utilized—steel base, extruded PVC frames, rip-stop nylon fabric
• the cost—said to be $21 million paid for entirely by the artists
• and politics of course—who finally approved it and why?
As a practicing artist for 30+ years I enjoyed the reactions of those who commented on The Gates—whether they had actually personally viewed it or not. It was great to see and hear so many people talking about art. I can imagine that many thought more about the purpose and meaning of this installation than they have about any art for some time and that some were encouraged to make art appreciation a bigger part of their lives. People who experienced The Gates first hand commented on the quality of the light through the fabric, the contrast of the man-made mechanical, regimented gates with the apparent natural surroundings—even though the surroundings are completely man-made landscaping—how watching the wind play with the fabric helped them see dozens of micro-climates within a few city blocks.
In short it encouraged them to take a fresh look and see Central Park in a new way.
If you’ve not yet formed a definitive opinion on The Gates, it may help to know that the landscape architects who turned Manhattans swamps and rocks into Central Park—Calvert Vaux and Fredrick Law Olmstead—surrounded the park with a stone wall with numerous openings that were designed to have lockable metal gates to secure the park at night.
Those gates were never installed, but their names remain; Strangers’ Gate, Pioneers’ Gate, Farmers’ Gate, Girls’ and Boys’ Gates, Naturalists’ Gate, Hunters’ Gate, Artisans’ Gate, Merchants’ Gate and more.
Or maybe that bit of connection between art and history isn’t relevant to you. Each of us evaluates art based on our own set of filters. An observation I’ve made is that direct personal experience of art often drastically changes my opinion.
Studying art from books and slides at a small college in the Pacific Northwest I had no appreciation of Jackson Pollack’s “paint thrown on a canvas”—until I visited New York and saw his large canvas at the Museum of Modern Art.
For me the two most striking aspects of Cristo’s work are its huge scale and fleeting existence. You had to be there, or you missed it. One person who was there was Kurt Liestenfeltz visiting from Washington, DC. He took the photos accompanying this article and many more.
New York City certainly benefited from Christo’s The Gates. Businesses all around the park had more than the usual number of customers for a couple weeks, tourism increased and art in New York was discussed around the country and the world.
And even those of us who couldn’t be there may have learned a little something.