NOTE:  This article is the longest we have written in three years, 2510 words.  You should not read it while at the office, unless you really have very little to do.  At home, you may want to read it intermittently.  I really think you should print it out.  It works for the subway, bus, bathroom or anywhere you have spare time.
 
The 
New York Sun's editors reduced the column's length to 1643 words, which is still long for a newspaper article.  It appears in today's Sun on page 8, the editorial page.  A photograph accompanies the column.  Newsday printed an 844-word version, under the headline "Contrarian at 'The Gates' reconsiders."  The story was also referenced on Gawker.

Please let us know what you think of the column and, more important, what you think of the exhibition.  We will post responses on our website.  We anticipate a wide difference of opinion among our readers, since there are a number of issues involved, one of them being taste.  You can link to readers' responses here.


Color Me Orange

By Henry J. Stern
February 15, 2005

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's production, "The Gates, Central Park, 1979-2005," opened Saturday morning and will close Sunday evening, February 27. Just 13 days remain for you to take in the gigantic array of public art. New Yorkers should see the exhibition for themselves before they make a judgment on its merits. We opposed Christo's original proposal in 1980, and wrote a skeptical column about the installation 
last April. Since then, we have essentially maintained a disciplined silence despite press requests, not wishing to make a further judgment on the show before it opened.

The vinyl gates have now been installed over 23 miles of Central Park pathways, and 7,500 orange nylon sheets hang from them and flap in the breeze, if any. The overall effect is a striking infusion of bright color, coming at a time when the trees are leafless. The public is largely favorably impressed by the temporary display, but if they thought it would be permanent, many park visitors would choke on it.

Judged by the standards of Cecil B. DeMille, the event must be considered a great success. No one before has ever seen over seven thousand schmatas hanging from orange crossbars over park paths, and, presumably, such a sight will not reappear in our lifetime. Even if you think the gates are ugly, or a machine-made derogation of real art, or that the display is inappropriate in a natural area, or that Christo Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon (his wife, business manager, and muse) are shameless self-promoters, there is still much to appreciate in the colorful spectacle, including the fact that it was built, in the plain view of millions of people.  It is no tragedy to do such a thing once, to amuse, enlighten, and provoke people, as long as no harm is done to the park.  Perhaps the sight of the gates will teach us to be watchful about monkeying with the park's natural landscape in order to suit the caprice of artists with deep pockets.

We are told that the show will bring thousands of European tourists to New York City over its two-week run to take advantage of the cheap dollar and the unique exhibition. Art lovers from all over this continent may also be moved to see "The Gates" in person. February is usually a slow month for tourism because of the cold. We expect the usual agencies to produce figures showing how many millions of dollars came into the city's economy because of the advent of the Christos. If, as promised, every trace of the gates, including footings, is removed after the closing date of February 27, the park should suffer no permanent damage.

That would not have happened under Christo's original plan, which was rejected by former Commissioner Gordon Davis in 1980, who wrote a 107-page treatise on why it was inappropriate for the park. I concurred with his view until I left Parks in 2002. Mr. Davis reversed his opinion that year, upon his appointment by Mayor Bloomberg to the board of directors of the Central Park Conservancy, a group which had previously opposed the orangification of the park.

The event has drawn worldwide public attention, which reinforces the importance of the classic park and the world city.  It has brought happiness and some excitement, or at least relief from tedium, to many of the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and visitors who have come to see it.  It sharply increased park visitation in chilly February.  It has given many people a good reason to take a healthy walk, particularly in the wilder, more natural north end of the park.  The 21 million dollars allegedly spent to produce the spectacle have brought economic benefit to the people who received the money.  In today's degraded value system, being well-known is much more important than exactly what you are well-known for. The exhibit will not hurt the reputation of this great park in any way.  Nobody felt any worse about the Reichstag after the Christos wrapped it in silver polypropylene in 1995, although we think they could have used sackcloth to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the destruction of the capital of the Third Reich.

The legal agreement the city hammered out with the artist-sponsors is far better than the one that was proposed by Christo in the 1980's. The revised conditions, the result of firm and forceful negotiations, make the scheme far more appealing than it was when it was first presented.  For one thing, the footings for the gates will not penetrate the rocks or the soil, as was first suggested. If you look carefully at the bases of the gates, you will see they rest on the pavement, not in it.  Second, the number of gates was reduced from 15,000 to 7500, a reduction of fifty per cent.  In addition, a sum of $3 million was required to be paid in advance by the Christos, to be shared equally by Central Park and neighborhood parks throughout the city.  The season of the show was changed from busy October to relatively quiet February, and its length limited to sixteen days.

These revised conditions, the result of firm and forceful negotiations, make the scheme far more appealing than it was when it was first presented to Parks.  Other circumstances have changed as well in the last quarter-century. Central Park is in far better shape today than it was in 1980, due to strenuous efforts by the city and the generous Central Park Conservancy, founded and led for years by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. The park is no longer the butt of mugger jokes. It is safe, clean, and beautiful. It invites visitors without fear or embarrassment. And the prolific Bulgarian-born Christo Vladimiroff Javacheff — married to Jeanne-Claude, who is said to have been born in Morocco on the same day as her husband, June 13, 1935 — is far better known today, due to interesting work on a grand scale that he has done with Jeanne-Claude in California and Japan, Biscayne Bay off the Florida coast, and the Pont Neuf in Paris, as well as the Reichstag. He has completed many successful projects around the world, and, now approaching 70 years of age, he is at the summit of his career. So we can be less concerned about admitting other artists than we were 25 years ago; there are no comparable figures to be kept at bay.

We proceed to the question: Is Christo's work art? To take a page from recent political history, the answer depends on what your definition of "art" is. If art is what people are willing to buy because 1) they think it is pretty, and fits on the walls of their condos, or 2) their friends or their enemies are also buying it, or 3) it may increase in value faster than their stocks, gold, real estate or fur coats, the answer is clearly yes.

But if art is defined as an object or representation that is beautiful, the answer is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that what is beautiful to some may not be so perceived by others. If you believe that art is whatever is exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum, the Louvre or other great museums, you may be right, but the fit with Christo is not too good, although he and Jeanne-Claude were given a full-dress show at the Met last year for his building plans, an event partially paid for by a powerful and prestigious patron.

The remarkable aspect of Christo's work is not its striking beauty, although it is probably as attractive and tasteful as orange vinyl bars with hanging shower curtains can ever be. With daubs of white at their centers, the curtains could well be creamsicles. The distinction of The Gates lies in its unique site, Central Park, an iconic location important to urban history, landscape architecture, and real estate values in Manhattan. Also noteworthy is this artistic producer's enviable persistence over a lifetime in gaining consent from the powers that be to have his work displayed in prestigious public places. The show is labeled "1979-2005," which informs us that it took a generation for the backward provincial authorities to see the light and grant permission for the exhibition.

In fact, we saw relatively little of Christo during the 15 years I served as parks commissioner under Mayors Edward I. Koch and Rudolph W. Giuliani. There were approaches through Theodore Kheel, the distinguished labor mediator who represented Christo. Occasionally, a socialite would tell me what a great man the artist was. But his attention to other projects basically put Central Park on the back burner, and it was not a public issue for many years.

Christo's conquest of Central Park is due to one and only one person, Mr. Bloomberg, a longtime art aficionado who collects and admires his work. While a board member of the Central Park Conservancy in the 1990's, he showed himself to be an early Christonian. At that time, the board rejected his suggestion for sensible reasons, not at the request of Parks. However, when he was elected mayor in 2001, which carries with it the right to appoint the parks commissioner and five board members of the Central Park Conservancy, everyone saw the light, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and resignation.  The conservancy contented itself with protecting the park from damage, and seeking compensation for the intrusion, which is reasonable, because decisions of this magnitude should be made by the mayor, the city's principal elected official.

Under the leadership of Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris, who in the 1980's had been executive director of the city's Art Commission under Mr. Koch, the transaction advanced steadily. Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Conservancy President Douglas Blonsky were assiduous in their assistance on their assigned task. In 2003, the mayor and Christo announced the exhibit for February 2005. Albert Maysles has made Christo documentaries for many years and is now working on "The Gates."  I have been interviewed for the film, but do not expect to be its protagonist.

The somewhat smaller-than-planned exhibition, which could be called "Christo Lite," is now on display. It turned out to have brought the public considerable entertainment and not harmed the landscape materially.  New Yorkers and tourists can take in the spectacle, free of charge.  Central Park is receiving far more attention and visitation than normal — people venture out to walk its paths in freezing February, and tourists' dollars jingle through the city's hotels and restaurants.  It has been wryly suggested that, after the exhibit closes, the 7500 pieces of orange cloth could be recycled into sturdy shower curtains, available, at a price, to be recycled to those who desire symbols of culture and its companion, prestige, dry bathroom floors, and souvenirs of an historic event.  If the curtains were signed and numbered, their value would multiply.  Skilled cutters from the city's renowned garment district would see to it that the most curtains were cut from each bolt of orange cloth.

Just as he would be blamed if the event became a debacle, the mayor should be credited with its success.  He was fortunate, however, in that this decision was entirely within his authority, and was executed by his some of his abler appointees.  When issues arise which require the consent of other elected officials, the going is much harder, since many of his colleagues in government are more responsive to self-interest, special interests, constituency pressures, and the roar of the crowd.  Unlike the mayor, their livelihood depends on their reelection, and they are unwilling to place themselves in jeopardy, or anywhere near it.

Those of us who love the parks, natural areas and landscapes will never be enchanted by man-made intrusions, even under the elegant cloak of public art. Some people cannot wait for the garish gates to be gone. They will not have long to wait. Their memory will have been seared by the exhibit, a vivid example of what the park would look like if it were commercialized.

Financial questions also linger: If Christo paid the $21 million he says it cost to mount the exhibition, how and from whom will that substantial sum be recovered? He and Jeanne-Claude are by no means starving artists, but it is surprising that they would be able to invest eight figures in an ephemeral project. He says he accepts no corporate or personal sponsorships. But who buys the drawings, which are said to go for $600,000 for the large, and $100,000 for the small? Are these investments in the drawings of a living artist reasonable? How much pin money does one need to be a collector? Are the drawings cheaper by the dozen?

One thing I have learned in public life is that there is no certainty over whether a decision or an event will turn out to be good, bad or something in between. This is particularly true when the issue is rooted in artistic values. The best course is to make honest judgments on the basis of the facts that you can ascertain, uninfluenced by personal whims or outside pressures. You may lose on the issue — you may even be mistaken — but you will have acted with honor.

Another attribute of sound judgment is willingness to change one's mind in response to new evidence or fresh events.  A third is the ability to make qualitative and partial judgments — something may be good for purpose A but bad for purpose B, or right at one time and place, and wrong at another time and place.  And don't forget Jerry Maguire's rule: "Show me the money."  By "me" I mean 'City of New York/Parks & Recreation,' aka the Emerald Empire.  The twenty-six years of Christo involve all these shadings of judgment.  The process was tortuous, the timeline sadly not unusual in New York City, but the result appears successful.

An ecstatic review by Michael Kimmelman appeared on page one, column one of the Sunday Times:
"Thousands of swaths of pleated nylon were unfurled to bob and billow in the breeze.  In the winter light, the bright fabric seemed to warm the fields, flickering like a flame against the barren trees.  Even at first blush, it was clear that "The Gates" is a work of pure joy, a vast populist spectacle of good will and simple eloquence, the first great public art event of the 21st century.  It remains on view for just 16 days (now 13).  Consider yourself forewarned. Time is fleeting."
Go to the park and see it for yourself.  But if you fail at first blush to fall into a rhapsodic swoon at the majestic and overwhelming beauty being displayed before your eyes, do not abandon hope.  You are not necessarily a member of the booboisie.  You may be closer to the boy who saw the emperor's new clothes.

Time and observation compel me to add a clause to my words ten months ago:

"Le jardin n'est pas une orangerie, mais pour deux semaines ça va."



Henry J. Stern
starquest@nycivic.org
New York Civic
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