That brilliant orange hit me like a bolt from the blue. Installations often leave me cold, but I gladly embraced New York in February to experience this artwork. Not just once, either. Again and again. Different times of day. Different weathers. Nine separate visits during the sixteen-day exhibit.
Whatever possessed me? I’m a writer, not an art groupie. And I live sixty miles from Manhattan. “Possessed” was the operative word.
Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of The Gates in Central Park 1979-2005, by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Known for their vast temporary environmental transformations, involving extensive sweeps and wraps of fabric, Christo and Jeanne Claude dreamt for years of erecting seventy-five hundred saffron-fabric paneled Gates over twenty-three miles of trails in Central Park. They labored from 1979-2005 in service of their dream, applying to one administration after another, grappling with New York City’s labyrinth of permit-granting agencies. As is true of all their projects, they financed the entire thing by selling preparatory sketches of the Gates and other artworks.
Photo © Irene O’Garden, 2005
When The Gates were first unfurled on the morning of February 12, 2005, I was at the health club. Glancing up from my workout, I was delighted to see the cavalcade of networks covering an art event. It whetted my anticipation for the next day—friends with an apartment overlooking the Central Park Reservoir were throwing a brunch in honor of The Gates. Elegant, I thought. Brunch for art’s sake.
My husband was out of town that radiant Sunday morning, so I took the train to Grand Central by myself, then grabbed the subway to 79th and Broadway. I’d walk to the Park, pass under a few Gates along a ten-block slice, nip up to my friends’ place, gobble, gab and head to another event that afternoon in Brooklyn.
A block from Central Park near The Museum of Natural History, The Gates are already visible.
The artists had described them as “saffron,” a word that conjures different colors for different people. I’d pictured paella-yellow. A friend expected saffron-thread red. This vivid ripe orange makes me pick up speed.
I enter Central Park. A narrow series flags an almost-private boulder-bordered trail I’d never noticed in thirty years. Following the panels, I explore a new piece of the park. And mysteriously, I hear an art point whispered in my ear. Art takes people places they have never been.
Elegant, indeed, the brunch. The guests abuzz with a tangy New York mix of glee and criticism: “What do you think?” “It’s exciting!” “Did you read the Times?” “What’s the hoopla about a bunch of fabric?”
Already slightly heady, I skip Champagne. The gracious windows offer fluttering views: bits of orange like map-tags ornament the big blue dish of the reservoir. I want to get back down and walk through more of them. Several bites of salmon and sips of coffee later, I thank my hosts and leave early to walk instead of subway down to 59th for the Brooklyn train.
Strolling beneath the wavy orange I find I’m grinning like a child. Streaming, smiling people, right and left. All these people outdoors in Central Park on a beautiful February Day. Laughing, giggling, talking about art. Or not. Parents, kids. No charge. No barriers. No English required. This is art a baby can enjoy. Art the elderly, the physically challenged can enjoy. It only asks us to move through it. Or not.
It is so beautifully conceived and executed. Volunteers stand by with specially designed poles to flip back any wind-twisted Gates. Others answer questions and hand out tiny samples of the glossy textured fabric. Eye-contact and smiling in New York City. Not sugary but fresh. This artwork spreads a canopy of safety we share like a micro-climate. Another whisper: True art is always an experience.
Like wanting to see Mom all dressed up to go out, I want to see familiar spots transformed. Sheep’s Meadow is circled in flapping orange. Not flags, not curtains, but Gates. Art leads us into new understanding.
Awash in goodwill and staggered with pure festivity, I head for the towering angel: Bethesda Fountain.
So many of New York’s major art experiences are smallish paintings in rooms too small to comfortably accommodate all those who are hungry for artistic experience. Blockbuster art shows often create aggression in people. Crowded cages do the same in rats. However stirring the artwork, if people continually jostle, bump and cut in front of you, you will depart in irritation, denied the reflection a work of art should occasion.
The Gates is a work of art ample enough for New York. Twenty-three miles. 7500 Gates under which to pass. The sheer size of it. Walk and walk and walk. Forget it altogether. Think thoughts. Look up. There it is again. Look at these smiling chattering people. It’s like a winter carnival. The real art is not the fabric, but the response.
The park is open every day of the year, but now we share it in a new way. Art transforms the commonplace. An expiration date makes it sweeter. This marvelous winter party, this Victorian promenade is here for two weeks and never again. Experience art while you can.
That day I gave up my plan to go to Brooklyn. I kept walking under the bright canopy, through the booth-like structures, amazed that something so extensive and festive had no commercial intent. It was a gift. And who knew when I’d get back to the city?
Then it struck me—I could return (something I have never desired after a blockbuster.)
The Gates were limited in duration, yes, but not to a single day. I wanted to see them in every possible weather, at all times of day, and so I did return. Nine train trips into the city and back. In snow, in ice, at night, under gray skies and blue. Many photographs, many meditations. A true work of art offers something different each time.
I can’t share all my treasured moments here, but I will say that the ultimate pleasure happened the day I wandered up in the northeast section of the park and saw coming toward me on the path an unmistakable glowing redhead and her grinning grey-feathery-headed companion. Good lord, it was Jean Claude and Christo themselves, enjoying a stroll through their beautiful dream come true! To be able to thank them for this seminal art experience was both magical and profound. Thank artists whenever you can.
True art becomes part of us. Fifteen years is nothing. Four million visitors and I will carry this forever. Even if you could not see the piece, I hope you can feel its peace reverberating and inspiring, fresh as ever. True art is part of all of us.
Photo © Irene O’Garden, 2020