Imagine an orange curtain billowing across a narrow Colorado Valley, or an ancient Left Bank street in Paris suddenly alive with a barrier of colored oil barrels, or the ominous shape of the Reichstag in Berlin transformed into pillowy buoyancy by layers of silky wrapping.
Pictures don't capture their startling beauty, but now New Yorkers may have the chance to see the artwork of Christo and Jeanne-Claude closer to home.
After more than two decades of bureaucratic stalling, plans are tentatively going forward for a series of 7,500 saffron-colored flagged gates that would light up Central Park for two weeks in February. "After 23 years," Jeanne-Claude says, "we see the light at the end of the tunnel."
A Christo and Jeanne-Claude project always has a mysterious core, but three things are certain: It will be free. The artists pay for everything they use and everyone they hire with money raised from Christo's drawings and early works. The Central Park project would use 4,500 tons of steel and a million square feet of fabric, and cost an estimated $20 million.
It will be ephemeral. Christo, Jeanne-Claude and their workers would spend almost as much time removing the work as they would spend installing it. Their projects provide thousands of temporary jobs and bring in millions of tourist dollars.
It will be controversial. The in-your-face gorgeousness of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work always has provoked mixed public reaction. It's as if we want to keep art where we think it belongs: in museums or on the walls of the wealthy who can pay millions for a tiny canvas.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work is surprising and familiar at the same time. It forces us to perceive the ordinary with new eyes, to look into the heart of something we think we know and see it as if for the first time. They promote change, and change is often uncomfortable. Their art is fun, and we think art has to be dreadfully serious. They are old-fashioned romantics who see the world as a joyful place and invite us to share that vision. People working on their projects often are singing.
They have lived in Manhattan almost half a century, but Jeanne-Claude and Christo have never done a significant New York project. Now, at last, they may have a chance to bring their joyful vision home.
Susan Cheever is a columnist at Newsday, a Tribune company.