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The Passion of the Christos

The Gates, in Central Park, 26 years in the making, mile upon mile of billowing fabric, is the largest artwork since the Sphinx. But what does it mean? As Jeanne-Claude might say, what a dumb question.


Christo working on a drawing of The Gates in his Soho studio. Photo Credit: Wolfgang Volz  

On the fifth floor of a converted factory just north of Canal Street, the artist Christo is sketching furiously in a sweatshop of his own design—well, not his design alone.

“Nobody speaks to Christo!” says his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, in her dramatic Parisian accent. “Christo is working seventeen hours a day on the drawings we must sell to pay for The Gates. Without these sketches, there will be no Gates!”

So every morning Christo climbs the stairs from the couple’s fourth-floor apartment to his fifth-floor studio. He works, standing, for several hours on wall-size drawings that illustrate the plans for The Gates, the enormous installation he and his wife have planned for Central Park, and which is scheduled to open in mid-February. Sometimes he moves to a table to work on one of six or seven smaller collages, all at various stages of completion. Or he spreads out a drawing on the floor and works, wearing gardener’s knee pads. “Sometimes he comes down to eat raw garlic, which he eats three times a day,” says Jeanne-Claude. “A total of one head of garlic a day, raw, like candies. With some yogurt. And sometimes a glass of soy milk. That takes him about three minutes. Then back to the studio.”

He leaves Jeanne-Claude downstairs to conduct interviews and schedule visits by collectors, several of whom now visit their studio each day. The works are priced by size: The small collages, measuring eleven inches by eight and a half inches, sell for $30,000; the wall-size drawings, at four and three quarters feet by eight feet, go for $600,000. The Gates, which is being financed entirely by the Christos, with not a penny of grants, city money, or donations, is budgeted at $20 million—which translates to a lot of collages, drawings, sketches, and models. “Nobody comes up here unless they are buying!” Jeanne-Claude says. “Are you buying?”

“Nobody speaks to Christo,” says Jeanne- Claude. “Christo is working seventeen hours a day on the sketches we must sell to pay for The Gates.”

So what, exactly, is The Gates? Well, literally, it’s exactly that: 7,500 gates that will frame the pathways of Central Park for sixteen days next month. Each of the gates is sixteen feet high, secured to a heavy metal base and trailing a swath of bright saffron-colored fabric, all of which, together in the wind, will create a shimmering river of color. The official title of the work is The Gates: Central Park, New York, 1979–2005, and that 26-year span in the date is no typo. It represents the exact length of time it’s taken them to persuade New York City officials to let this enormously ambitious, logistically staggering, and—by the artists’ own admission—gleefully pointless project come to life. They’ve attended meetings, consultations, and public hearings during two decades: The couple made 41 formal presentations to civic officials and community leaders in 1980 alone. They’ve endured feasibility reports, petitions, angry letters of protest, and a 251-page official refusal, issued 23 years ago.

The Gates has taken so long to come to fruition, in fact, that when it was first proposed, its artist had only one name: Christo. Now the artist is called Christo and Jeanne-Claude. In 1994, the couple formally announced what they said had been true all along: that they were equal partners in creating each of their massive environmental works. Their sense of themselves as collaborators, though, is something closer to symbiosis. They were both born on June 13, 1935, he in Bulgaria, she in Casablanca, to a French military family. Jeanne-Claude is fond of combining their ages; she once told a reporter they’d just turned 120. They travel everywhere together, except on planes—they want to ensure, in the event of a crash, that the other one remains to finish any ongoing work. To Jeanne-Claude, their complementary sensibilities are self-evident. “For example, Surrounded Islands is not an idea of Christo, it is an idea of Jeanne-Claude,” she says. “That is why, if you look at it carefully, you might find it a little bit more feminine than other projects. The Wrapped Reichstag was Christo’s idea, and that is very much less feminine.”

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