To the public, the Christos are popularly known, much to their frustration, as “the wrapping artists” or, even more colloquially, as “the guy who wraps things.” This is mostly a result of their most widely publicized work to date, Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971–1995, an installation that involved wrapping the entire German Parliament building in silvery fabric, so that it looked like an enormous wedding cake. But many of their other works, they point out, have nothing to do with wrapping. The Umbrellas, for instance, consisted of 3,100 umbrellas, planted across 30 miles of countryside in California and Japan. Or Running Fence, a 1976 work for which they erected a 241⁄2-mile, eighteen-foot-high fence of rippling white fabric that snaked across Sonoma and Marin counties in California, then disappeared into the ocean.
Their identity as wrappers is just one of the many misconceptions they address on their Website, christojeanneclaude.net, in a section titled “Common Errors.” Other common errors: The Christos are mysterious about their work. (“NO. Christo and Jeanne-Claude constantly lecture and answer questions.”) Calling him Mr. Christo. (“NO. Christo is his first name and the only one he uses.”) One can see their artwork best from the air. (“No! None of the work is designed for the birds.”)
That any of their works have been completed at all seems both a small miracle and not entirely surprising, at least once you’ve met the artists. The Christos are nothing if not patient. From the day in 1980 they announced to New York officials that they wanted to march a small army into the city’s most treasured public space—and, oh, by the way, plant 15,000 fabric-draped steel gates—they’ve run up against a wall of skeptics. Some of those skeptics will be in attendance on February 12, the day The Gates is scheduled to open.
“I’ve likened it to an artistic Halley’s Comet,” Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe tells me from his cell phone, as he travels by car through Central Park, passing the crews assembling The Gates. “Blink and you’ll miss it. And you won’t see it again in your lifetime.” People like Benepe who were involved in the negotiations for The Gates list a variety of factors that improbably aligned to make this comet possible, from the post-9/11 tourist lull to a renewed public interest in art and design, sparked by the debates over the World Trade Center memorial. But three factors are repeatedly invoked: 1) the restoration of Central Park; 2) the election of Michael Bloomberg as mayor; and 3) the small matter of the 30,000 holes the Christos once hoped to dig in Central Park.
The Christos have called New York home since 1964, having moved here from Paris, drawn by the art scene. In Paris, Christo had built his reputation wrapping small-scale objects, such as telephones, chairs, and trees. But he was enthralled by New York’s skyline, and started sketching plans to wrap the Whitney, MoMA, and the Allied Chemical Tower in Times Square.