In terms of sheer scope, there are few artists who can compete with Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Over the last 40 years, they have wrapped the Reichstag in fabric and strung a 24-mile-long fence through Sonoma and Marin counties, incorporating tons of steel, millions of square feet of fabric and untold thousands of man-hours.
The six documentaries Albert Maysles has made about the couple’s projects are modest by comparison, running a mere six hours in all. But in their own way, they represent an achievement no less impressive than any of the massive environmental installations whose creation they chronicle. Covering more than 30 years in the public and private lives of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the films make an unparalleled record of the artistic process, which for the couple is equal parts individual inspiration and industrial contracting. The films double as an account of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s stormy and argumentative but, to all appearances, happy marriage, making them a sort of bohemian equivalent to Michael Apted’s “Up” series. “The Gates,” the latest film in the series, will have its television premiere Tuesday on HBO.
Picking up the couple’s story 12 years after “Umbrellas,” “The Gates” chronicles their 26-year effort to adorn Central Park’s walkways with about 7,500 steel and vinyl portals, each dangling a rippling curtain of translucent orange fabric above the heads of passersby. Like all of the Christo installations, “The Gates” was temporary. Sixteen days after they were unveiled in February 2005, the gates were dismantled, remaining only in the collective memory of the millions who flocked to see them.
Although they last only a matter of weeks, the mammoth undertakings often take years, and sometimes decades, to realize. “The Gates’ ” first section details the couple’s abortive attempt to stage the project in 1979, when they were met with a wall of opposition from city officials and cultural guardians. Gordon J. Davis, then New York City parks commissioner, explains, “This is a city where, if everybody says yes, one person has to say no.” (Their current project is “Over the River,” which would drape about seven miles of the Arkansas River in Colorado in translucent fabric panels. If achieved as scheduled in 2012, it would be 20 years after they began working on it in earnest.)
Twenty-three years after their first run at “The Gates,” the pair got a lucky break when Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor. An advocate of public art, Bloomberg had supported “The Gates” as a trustee of Central Park’s conservancy, and his yes outweighed the other no’s. After the shock of Sept. 11, Bloomberg saw the project as a way to “reassert the daring and imaginative spirit” of the city.
Sheila Nevins, the head of HBO’s documentary division, was among the New Yorkers who agreed. “Having seen a great monument wrecked by terrorism, it was extraordinary to see a monument erected of steel to art,” she said recently by telephone.
The result, as displayed in “The Gates’ ” impressionistic final third, was a sinuous river of fabric running from midtown Manhattan, and park walkways crowded with onlookers even on the coldest of February days. One dazzled patron observes, “It’s like the whole park is the lobby of a theater.”
With his brother, David, Albert Maysles was a pioneer of the observational documentary style that became known as direct cinema. The lightweight, portable equipment developed during the 1960s allowed the Maysles to achieve an extraordinary proximity with their subjects in such films as 1968’s “Salesman” and 1970’s “Gimme Shelter,” although for some, 1976’s “Grey Gardens” was too close for comfort. David died in 1987, but he is credited as “The Gates’ ” co-director, along with Antonio Ferrara and Matthew Prinzing. (As a tribute, the 1979 footage includes a brief shot of David with his microphone, tapping it with a note pad to signal the end of a reel.)
“Artists generally, they work at a canvas and that’s it,” Maysles said while slurping homemade soup in his pleasantly cluttered Harlem town house. “What they’ve made ends up in someone’s collection on a wall or in a museum.”
Art by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, by contrast, exists in the public sphere and, for this reason, the movies implicitly argue, is often better appreciated by the hoi polloi than the highfalutin. In “Valley Curtain” (1974), a golfer watches quizzically as construction workers string a massive swatch of orange fabric across a Colorado valley, explaining to her friends that Christo is “an artist, one of those people who paint pictures.” Compare that with the hard-hatted worker who looks up at his handiwork and says simply, “This is a vision.”
In “The Gates,” a burly hot-dog vendor summarizes the project’s appeal. “It’s just a piece of art,” he says. “You look at it and just keep going.” The critical response to “The Gates” was almost uniformly positive, but Jeanne-Claude prefers the approbation of the hot-dog man. “He describes our work of art better than any art historian can or has done,” she said by phone from their Soho studio.
The couple disdain intellectual explanations of their work. At a press conference, Christo described “The Gates” as “irrational, irresponsible, without any justification,” a personal gesture on an extravagant scale. Although some of their early projects were sponsored by art patrons, the couple now finance their work themselves through the sale of preparatory drawings and early works. (The tab for “The Gates” came to $26 million.) They receive no income from ancillary products or the films, which are partly funded out of their pockets.
The Maysles brothers first filmed Christo and Jeanne-Claude at work in 1972. “They and we saw right away that we were made for each other,” Maysles recalled. “Just as with documentary filmmaking we’re dependent on reality, what’s going on around us, their projects are strongly connected with the public. And the public’s reaction to that project is very much part of their project, and therefore part of the film. It seemed like we were a perfect match.”
For the couple, the years of preparation are as much a part of their art as the completed structures -- every zoning board, every public hearing and each person involved. In “Running Fence” (1978), Christo tells a skeptical crowd, “The work is not the fabric, the steel poles and the fence. The art project is right now, here. Everybody here is part of the work, if they want or they don’t want.”
In a sense, then, the Maysles’ films are the only complete record of the Christo art. “No matter how much of a lover you are of this art, no matter how much time you spend walking through the gateways, it can’t compare with the experience of watching the film,” Maysles said.
“We like the films because they show this invisible part of our projects,” Christo said. “It’s an incredible gift they have to film so many parts. Al has such enormous humanity in his camera when he looks at things.”
About two-thirds of the way through “The Gates,” a funny thing happens. Christo and Jeanne-Claude, whose struggles and triumphs have been the backbone of the film, essentially disappear from the frame, and their work takes over. The camera drinks in the play of light across fabric and records spectators’ awe-struck (and occasionally unimpressed) reactions. Christo appears briefly, gazing out the window of a moving car, as enchanted as if he were seeing the gates for the first time.
Maysles himself thinks the film’s final act “goes on a little too long.” But the couple disagree. “Many people find it very boring,” Christo said, “but I think it gives tremendous dramatic counterpoint to the first part of the film. The first part is so tense, so screaming, so hectic, and suddenly the pace is very long, very slow. I find it very invigorating.”
Perhaps it is not surprising that the man responsible for draping the Australian coastline in a million square feet of fabric should find that it is the very length of the film’s ending that makes it work. “The length makes the film strange,” he said. “If it was shorter, it would be perfectly ordinary.”