Wrapper’s Delight

Experiencing the ephemeral: Christo and Jeanne-Claude help us reimagine Central Park

I lived in Paris, but I never saw The Pont Neuf Wrapped (1975-85), a temporary work of art in which husband-and-wife team Christo and Jeanne-Claude draped that 400-year-old bridge for two weeks in some half a million feet of silky beige fabric. I lived in Berlin, but I never witnessed the Wrapped Reichstag(1971-95), an epic undertaking they planned for nearly a quarter of a century, in which Germany's monumental parliament building, symbol of the country's tragic past, lay encased like a chrysalis for 14 days in 100,000 square meters of silvery textile, bound with blue rope.

I live today around the corner from the couple in lower Soho, where my partner, an artist who moved here in the 1970s, claims to have spotted them repeatedly over the decades at the local ATM. I'd never caught sight of them until, with hundreds of other world media representatives (including Bulgarian state television), I sat beside the Metropolitan Museum of Art's venerable Temple of Dendur one recent morning to hear them speak about The Gates—7,500 saffron portals hung with pleated curtains that currently flutter over the walkways of Central Park. Yet their work has occupied one corner of my mind for decades; they're a ubiquitous presence in contemporary art. And when they stepped onto the podium, holding hands, I caught my breath, for in their aging figures, I glimpsed my own mortality.

Such autobiographical details may seem gratuitous or self-indulgent, but the dualities they conjure—at the intersection of art and life, and between endless expanses of imagination and the finite, fleeting quality of experience—are central to the oeuvre of these artists, who have long toyed with the limits of perception. Who can possess The Gates, materially or sensually? A work of extreme beauty and a vast populist spectacle, free and accessible to all, it represents an act of generosity on the part of Christo and Jeanne-Claude comparable to the potlatch ceremonies of Native American chieftains in the Pacific Northwest, who dominated their neighbors by overwhelming them with gifts.

It eludes the grasp of friend and foe: The Gates (installation detail)
photo: Robin Holland
It eludes the grasp of friend and foe: The Gates (installation detail)

Over the project's opening weekend, gracious art collectors, one serving only saffron-colored hors d'oeuvres such as cheese doodles and smoked salmon, offered us ethereal views from their apartments high above Central Park South and West, but their windows could not contain the work. And even if you walked all 23 miles of footpaths framed in gold (as some will certainly), you couldn't do it in all kinds of winter weather, or at all different times of day, when the February sun, streaming low at morning and evening or bearing down from high overhead at noon, transforms the opaque curtains into glowing, translucent screens for the shadow play of leafless branches, and as the wind, blowing this way and that, half reveals brilliant patches of sky, pieces of vegetation, and the park's distant vistas.

And because it eludes the grasp of friend and foe, of critics, collectors, the art market, the media hype, the Christo and Jeanne-Claude groupies, and even, one suspects, the artists themselves, The Gates offers an exhilarating sense of freedom, drawing you ever deeper into a space that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Central Park's makers, conceived as "a translation of democratic ideals into trees and dirt."

Christo, born Christo Javacheff in Bulgaria in 1935, escaped Sofia's Stalinist art academy for Vienna and later Paris, where he met Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, a French general's daughter, in 1958. She applied a military commander's organizational skills to the realization of his quasi-utopian architectural visions, partly inspired by the model of Russian constructivists such as Vladimir Tatlin; they began signing their works together in 1994.

He wrapped things: first cans, chairs, bottles; later, with her, monuments, museums, and coastlines. Some of their earliest collaborative efforts were riffs on the iron curtain; a wall of oil barrels, for example, blocking the Rue Visconti in 1961, evoking both Parisian revolutionary barricades and the newly constructed Berlin Wall.

An impulse similar to wrapping—exposing hidden qualities in an object, a work of art, or nature by partially concealing its surface—is also at play in The Gates, the couple's only realized project in New York, where they've lived since 1964. Here what lies revealed, in all its glory, is the sensual topography of Olmsted and Vaux's masterpiece. Christo and Jeanne-Claude insist on discussing their work in purely formal and technical terms—so many tons of steel, so many yards of fabric, a color they love. But ambling beneath their saffron veils, I felt the wonder of a child before his mother's skirts, peering up as, billowing, they disclosed bits and pieces of nature. The park's 19th-century monuments—portraits of forgotten poets like Fitz-Greene Halleck—stood in marvelous, mute contrast to this luminous apparition, soon to disappear, which will linger in memory.

If, following the lead of Romantic poets, you prefer to experience art and nature in solitary contemplation—a state that can be hard to come by in Central Park right now—forgo the horse and buggies doing a brisk business around the park's southern perimeter. Head uptown. In the far recesses of the North Meadow and Harlem Meer, the crowds and noise thin out, the park becomes wilder and still more beautiful, and you can hear the curtains flapping in the breeze.

 
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