Thoughts on The Gates, an installation by Christo and Jeanne–Claude in Central Park
Like many Christo fans of my acquaintance, I had, until The Gates, never seen any of his installations in person. Photos had had to suffice to show me the work that he and his wife and collaborator, Jeanne–Claude, had done all over the world – the gorgeous white–wrapped coast in Sydney, Australia, the famous wrapped Reichstag, and the blue and yellow umbrellas scattered like wildflowers over Japan and Southern California.
When I heard that the two artists were going to install 7,500 tall metal gates in Central Park, each draped with gold–orange fabric, I knew I had to be there to see it.
When I walked into the park last week, I was overwhelmed at first by the sheer number of The Gates. It was almost too much to take in. But then I began to feel a delight in the profusion itself, and in the brilliant orange color – it was exuberant in its excess, playful in its sweep. That playfulness, however, was belied by the precision of the installation itself. For the paths in Central Park continually widen and narrow as they meander through the trees, and so each metal support for each gate had to be individually measured for its spot. Christo and Jeanne–Claude took site–specific art to a whole new level with this – it was a ground specific, foot–by–foot–specific installation.
And the result was, in part, to make me look specifically at the site, at every single patch of ground and stone and grass and asphalt that lay between them. Each gate seemed, as its name denotes, an entrance into something, and so I had the sensation of entering into a new thing every few feet. There was a hush to the piece, perhaps created by the softly flapping sound of the billowing fabric. It sounded, variously, like birds’ wings flapping, like a rushing stream, like wind through tall grass. Though nearly everyone I passed was smiling, their chatter was quiet, the better perhaps to hear the piece, and all the other sounds it drew our attention to. As my husband said, “It isn’t trying to tell you anything.” There is no message other than the beauty of it.
Pete Schjeldahl’s snippy, self–justifying piece in last week’s New Yorker made light of those smiling faces, and of the way the piece brings attention to the varied, marvelous aspects of the park itself. “C’mon people!” he writes. “You don’t need artificial aids to notice things.” Perhaps he has forgotten how many great artists, from Marcel Duchamp to Robert Irwin, from Joseph Cornell to Jasper Johns, have made it their business to redirect our gaze to what was already there for us to notice, from bottle racks to magazine movie stills, from a wash of light on a gallery ceiling to the design of the American flag. Schjeldahl might have used his column inches to place The Gates in that framework; he might, in other words, have actually performed his job as a critic – to educate, elucidate, inform, and contextualize, as well as to pass judgment. Instead he simply performed the last of these tasks, flavored with not a little anger, and dismissed the installation for precisely the fact that so many others have loved it.
It’s no wonder that Schjeldahl was annoyed by what the calls The Gates “populist affront to the authority of art critics.” The kingmakers of the art world are impotent when artists like Christo and Jeanne–Claude take their work directly to the street. And perhaps he’s simply jealous, too, of the bliss he snidely admits The Gates created in it many of its viewers. After all, it is clear that many, many of us who saw The Gates, were filled with a kind of glee, drunk on the beauty of it, in love again with the possibilities of made things, the works of art that we insufficient human beings can construct. What critic can hope to create in his readers the kind of ecstasy that direct, unmediated contact with an ambitious and proudly independent work of art has on its viewer? I suspect that Schjeldahl knows the answer, and that’s part of why he’s so angry. But enough of that.
More than twenty years in the making, sixteen days up and gone – yet I can still see the brilliant orange, reminding us of the fall that preceded winter; I can still hear the movement of the fabric against the wind and snow; I can still see a row of gates marching across the stone bridge on the southeast corner of the park, and another circling the skating rink. At night, against the dark sky and lit by streetlights, the cloth was silver–gray and shimmering; when the snow fell, it piled on the cross beams, a drift of winter against the possibilities of spring, the remembrances of autumn.
Thank you, Christo and Jeanne–Claude, for the beauty.