During the Renaissance, artists spent much of their time creating opulent court festivals, processionals, and other delightful extravaganzas. Gods stepped out of globes; fantastical architecture bloomed in town squares. These playful spectacles, which existed for only a moment, were not themselves great works of art (though who wouldn’t want to see the marvels that Leonardo concocted for the Duke of Milan?). But they were important amusements, conversation pieces with a political dimension, for any ambitious ruler, court, or city. They created civic pride. They banished boredom. They could make a cynic blink once. And politicians, of course, have always believed in “bread and circuses.”
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates is a spectacle consistent with this tradition, a piece of elaborate social theater that’s an unintentional portrait of our time. That portrait can be poignant and charming; most of all, it’s funny. I’m surprised more isn’t being made of the ongoing social comedy surrounding The Gates , which is a satirist’s dream. Well, actually, I’m not surprised: People are afraid to smile too much around art.
But first, the art criticism. Within Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s oeuvre, The Gates is a work of middling effect. Running Fence (1976) was more magical; the Wrapped Reichstag (1995), more suggestive. The color of the translucent fabric hanging from the gates isn’t quite right, at least to my eye, despite the ever-changing effects of light. The artists and their fans call the color “saffron,” as if it had been borrowed from Buddhist robes, but it looks more like a Wal-Mart orange that cuts too harshly across the subtle winter landscape.
The Gates neither attains nor aspires to any particular profundity. Like the Renaissance spectacles, it creates in viewers an initial whoah! but remains on the surface of the mind, a kind of visual one-liner that lacks any strong metaphysical character. Compare it to Tibetan prayer flags, for example, and you will see the difference between lighthearted fun and a heart lightened by faith; The Gates also lacks the formal concentration that a great artist brings to painting or sculpture. But its whoah!—well, there’s no denying the pleasurable hit. While it’s smart not to overvalue spectacle, it’s also important to acknowledge the human hunger for lavish display. And to recognize that some spectacles are better than others: As an American extravaganza, The Gates is much more interesting than, say, the halftime show at the Super Bowl.
The idea for The Gates first came to Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1979, a period when many artists were working directly with the landscape. A park, which turns nature into theater, would obviously be an attractive setting for the impresarios of this histrionic idea. And Central Park, the heart of a city of towers and outlandish gestures, makes the best stage of all. In Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s melodramatic art-folly, there’s something grandiose, in a dreamy and narcissistically childlike way that particularly suits New York. What could be more romantic than flags and gateways? As you walk through one gate after another, in formal procession, you can almost hear the medieval trumpets sounding to welcome the king (that’s you, bud). Or imagine yourself skipping along the yellow-brick road. Even if you hate it, you can admire your superior New York wit as you reach for the deflating analogy. They’re … Buddhist shower curtains?
No less childlike, but in a sweeter and more poignant way, is the conviction of the minimally paid people who constructed the 7,500 gates. Many came from elsewhere. Their desire to be part of a larger idea, to crusade for the useless and delightful in a society where everything must have a purpose and a price, is finally utopian in spirit. Christo and Jeanne-Claude have become the Pied Pipers of art. (“Christo” sounds rather like Christ, and Jeanne-Claude’s initials are J.C. The couple claim to have been born on the same day of the same year.) The Woodstock air that filled the park on the weekend The Gates opened, when strangers talked to one another and pilgrims from outside New York came to admire the spectacle, was enjoyable to everyone but professional grouches and, predictably, the art world. Many in that circle are now in a kind of humorless sulk, resentful of the attention paid to The Gates and appalled by the vulgar crossover of art into mainstream culture. The Gates is a form of visual pollution, in that view, an example of the hype and Philistinism perpetrated by the middle-class American mob. Which, of course, is yet another childlike perspective.
In a world of strange and upsetting pacts, the alliance between the Pied Pipers and the Republican mayor, Daddy Big Bucks, is actually one to cherish. Which among them, I wonder, is the best politician? Christo and Jeanne-Claude certainly perform the part of “modern artist” to perfection for an adoring public. Aren’t artists supposed to be eccentric? Well, look at her dyed hair. Aren’t artists supposed to be dreamy? Well, look at his lost expression. Christo and Jeanne-Claude are a hippy-dippy political juggernaut. Many people find their talent at self-promotion offensive, as if art were not already chock-full of scheming careerists. It would be easier for skeptics if the couple maintained some Warholian irony, of course, but then they would not be Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Then they would not have that implacable air of innocence. Imagine working tirelessly for 26 years to realize your project! Everyone knows that pushing anything through the New York bureaucracy is hopeless, but, together with the mayor, they dreamed the impossible dream. And they didn’t take a cent. It’s a Broadway musical.
Most New Yorkers appreciate The Gates for the right reason—the color and surprise brought into the February gloom. Central Park appears momentarily changed, and, once the gates are removed, just before spring begins its own transformations, the park will continue to seem a little different. The familiar should be upended sometimes, just as pictures should be rearranged regularly on the wall. (Renoir said that when you arrange a vase of flowers to paint, finding exactly the forms you want, you should then turn the vase around.) After The Gates , people will see the park more clearly for a time, becoming more conscious of the serpentine design of the paths and more aware, perhaps, of the genius of the park’s designer, Frederick Law Olmsted. Many people wonder what Olmsted would think of The Gates . He probably wouldn’t mind one way or the other, since the installation will last only sixteen days. I myself fantasized, while walking along the paths, about interviewing the park’s resident statues on the subject. The two I wanted to hear from most were Alice and Daniel Webster. Alice, I think, would prefer her own wonderland. As for Mr. Webster, his statue is forbiddingly noble, starchy, earnest, moral, dyspeptic, resolute, and stiff-backed. He would scowl at a cherry tree in bloom. A pigeon would not dare alight on his head. But I thought I saw him smile.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work is included in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, but the couple has never had a solo show there—though not for the museum’s lack of trying. According to his official bio, Christo was approached in 1979 (the year The Gates was conceived) by a Whitney curator. Christo reportedly said, “Your walls are horrible. It’s like a tomb,” insisting that his friend Gaetana Aulenti be allowed to redesign the galleries, whereupon the show was canceled. Perhaps it was for the best: According to his other half, Christo “has always been against any type of national museum of American art. What kind of art is that? Art is art.”