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Hometown hurrah at the gates

For four decades, Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, have traversed the world wrapping mammoth structures, surrounding islands with fabric, filling fields with giant umbrellas, turning streets, bridges, coastlines, hills, trees -- even a Volkswagen -- into sculpture. And during all that time the artists were living, working, and raising their only child in a funky loft north of Canal Street in SoHo. New York was always home.

But while scale models of their work were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and there were small shows in downtown galleries here, never has anything grand of theirs appeared in their adopted city.

Finally, that is to end. Last week, Christo and Jeanne-Claude began overseeing the installation of 7,500 “gates” on 23 miles of pedestrian walkways in this city’s crown jewel, Central Park. On Feb. 12, weather permitting, hundreds of workers will simultaneously unfurl a saffron-colored cloth from each gate. The usually bare and silvery winter park will appear injected with a stream of honey.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude have waited 26 years to present “The Gates, Project for Central Park, New York City.” They first tried to re-landscape the park with steel gates in 1979 but couldn’t penetrate the bureaucracy. New Yorkers have long considered Central Park itself a work of art, transformed after a design contest in 1857 from a barren swampland into idyllic urban oasis. As one critic complained of the original proposal, it would be like painting “a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”

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In the ‘90s, the artists tried again informally to get approval for Central Park. They had met “a gentleman” who was a fan of their work and also a member of the powerful Central Park Conservancy. They asked him to inquire if other members of the conservancy might reconsider the project that, frankly, wouldn’t cost them or the city a penny. (The artists take no sponsorship and always cover their costs by selling Christo’s drawings and collages.) The members weren’t interested.

But one day, “that gentleman became mayor of New York,” says Jeanne-Claude. Within a couple of years of Michael R. Bloomberg’s ascension to City Hall, the project was approved. It was also modified. There were half as many gates; instead of drilling holes, the poles of the gates would stand on steel bases; instead of the ends of the fabric panels hanging 5 feet 6 inches from the ground, they would be 7 feet, leaving enough room for anyone, except possibly the New York Knicks, to walk under.

Certainly, the artists, who both turn 70 on the same day this June, have gotten used to rejection. Thirty-eight of their projects have been turned down over the years in places around the world. Their authorized biography by the late Burt Chernow is filled with such stories -- of fire departments and city fathers calling them crazy for presenting their avant-garde ideas, of being snubbed and then embraced from Sonoma to Sydney.

Many art critics continue to dismiss Christo as a sort of P.T. Barnum who couldn’t even get a tent erected in his own backyard.

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“That’s because they are not part of the art establishment,” says Amei Wallach, a New York critic who has followed their work for years. “If they do a museum show, they have to curate it themselves. They don’t sell through the galleries. They want to control every aspect of everything they do, including what’s written about them, and so they get rebuffed.”

But the rejection from New York always cut deepest, although Jeanne-Claude is hard-pressed to admit it.

In a brief phone interview this past week, Jeanne-Claude at first hisses at the idea that somehow the New York project means more to them than, say, wrapping Berlin’s Reichstag as they did in 1995 or dotting the Tejon Pass with several thousand enormous umbrellas in 1991.

“They are all our children,” says Jeanne-Claude, “and thus valued equally. They are all so different.”

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At this point, she sets out a list of rules for any and all who want to interview her, exhibiting a propensity for control that has prompted even those who respect her canniness to label her “a piece of work” behind her back. She must not be quoted by name, which by the way was Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon when she was born in Morocco. “I am speaking for both of us, in one voice,” she says.

Christo, who was born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff in Bulgaria, can’t come to the phone because he is busy working around the clock in their three-story loft, she says. “There are only 39 days left before the opening. He does not sleep at this point.”

Finally, Jeanne-Claude desists with the rules and addresses why this New York project might be a hair more significant than others.

“We never in our life lived 41 years in the same place,” she says, explaining how they’d emigrated here in 1964 from Paris with a first stop at the famous Chelsea Hotel. “Our real life of thinking and creating has been in New York and, of course, to do something in Central Park in New York is, well, an added value.”

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A difficult project

In allowing the artists to do this project, the city and the Central Park Conservancy enforced a few rules of their own, and the artists and their longtime chief engineer, Vince Davenport, aware of earlier concerns that they would somehow make a shambles of the park, have been meticulous in how they have proceeded.

Thus, this has been one of the most difficult projects Christo and Jeanne-Claude have executed, according to Davenport.

“We’ve hired three times the number of paid workers -- 1,100 -- for this project than we anticipated,” said Davenport on a chilly morning last week as he scrutinized forklifts that will be transporting 15,000 steel bases into the park in coming weeks. Every truck has to be escorted by a city park’s department vehicle.

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“You get to do things differently in a rural area than you do in the middle of a big city,” said Davenport, shaking his head.

When one of the trucks yielded for a jogger, Davenport narrowed his eyes approvingly. “That’s what they’re supposed to do. This is a living, breathing place with bicyclers and joggers and birds and we aren’t going to interfere,” he said, directing his remarks with a nod at Doug Blonsky, president of the conservancy. When a truck’s treads edged off the pavement into the grass, Davenport scowled, “Hey, watch it!”

But despite the expense to the artists -- an estimated $21 million -- to mount this project and despite the extraordinary hurdles, Davenport insists that for Christo and Jeanne-Claude, this is “the coup de grace, the thing they’ve been working for all their lives, especially that banner over at the Met.”

He was referring to a giant banner that, speaking of draping, was draped over the front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue for almost three months last spring announcing an exhibit about “The Gates.”

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“That banner, that was as good as it gets,” said Davenport, a plain-spoken engineer from Seattle.

It was also temporary. But these are artists, after all, who understand the power of what is temporary and public. Unfurled on Feb. 12, the gates, which are supposed to turn viewers’ attention to the vast numbers of people who walk through this city, will be removed after Feb. 27.

In a brochure, Christo and Jeanne-Claude explain: “Our works are temporary in order to endow the works of art with a feeling of urgency to be seen, and the love and tenderness brought by the fact that they will not last.”

While the artists insist they regard each of their works with equal affection, it is clear there is something special about a hometown opening and about having had their names on a banner, even temporarily, looming large in front of the ultimate art palace, the Met.

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Coming down Fifth Avenue recently in a taxi, Jeanne-Claude says she turned to Christo and admitted: “I miss my banner. We loved it.”


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