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The Passion of the Christos

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The city’s art scene regarded the couple with mixed emotions. Jeanne-Claude became infamous for planning elaborate dinner parties and brazenly inviting every art-world figure of prominence, from Leo Castelli and Jasper Johns to Frank Stella and Marcel Duchamp. Ivan Karp, an art manager for Leo Castelli at the time, called the dinners “an ongoing scandal” and said of Jeanne-Claude, “I didn’t want to be in the same room with her.” As art critic David Bourdon recalled, “People were contemptuous of them. They were perceived as being very pushy. And then they served these god-awful meals. A lot of the unpopularity they met with in the early days was directed against Christo’s art; the rest was directed against Jeanne-Claude and her flank steak.”

Jeanne-Claude seems to relish her reputation as an art-world Yoko Ono. “This is my best quality,” she told Burt Chernow, their biographer. “It has protected Christo all these years. I think every artist needs a monster.” Later, I asked her to elaborate on the sentiment. She laughed. “In the art world, they like to say, ‘Christo is so nice and gentle, and he always says yes to everybody.’ Then he sends me to say no.”

Their plan for a New York project lay dormant until 1979, when they turned their eyes to Central Park. The Christos envisioned a project that would reflect the city’s peripatetic culture while complementing Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterful landscaping. They submitted a proposal to the city in 1980; it involved 15,000 steel-pole gates planted directly in the park’s soil. They hoped to open The Gates in October 1983. Their budget was just over $5 million.

“Back then,” says Doug Blonsky, current president of the Central Park Conservancy, “the question for the park was, How do we restore the crown jewel of New York City? Not, How do we come in and dig up 30,000 holes?” To that end, Gordon J. Davis, then the city’s parks commissioner, had founded the conservancy, a committee designed in part to shield the park from just the kind of intrusive event the Christos were proposing. So their project found few allies. A New York Times editorial condemned it. And at a press conference captured on film by the documentarian Albert Maysles, one attendee sounded the most commonly heard complaint: “Here’s an event of 27 miles of shower curtains around the park,” he said with gruff incredulity. “Is that necessary, Mr. Christo, to promote yourself?”

Davis and others tried to sway the Christos toward less delicate locations: the Coney Island boardwalk or the Park Avenue mall. At a lecture at the Pratt Institute, a city official asked the artists why they wouldn’t consider Prospect Park as an alternative. Jeanne-Claude stood up brusquely from her chair. “I want to ask the gentleman a silly question,” she said. “Did you marry the lady you wanted or did you marry an alternative woman?”

By January 1981, though, they sensed the marriage would be called off altogether. Sure enough, in February, Commissioner Davis released a 251-page report outlining his reasons for turning them down. As part of his decision, Davis said, “If we allowed Christo to do this, we would have to do the same for everyone. That would make a shambles of the park.”


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