NEW YORK - For four decades, Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, have traversed the world wrapping mammoth structures, surrounding islands with fabric, filling fields with giant umbrellas, turning streets, bridges, coastlines, hills, trees - even a Volkswagen - into sculpture. And during all that time the artists were living, working, and raising their only child in a funky loft north of Canal Street in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. New York was always home.
But while scale models of their work were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and there were small shows in downtown galleries here, never has anything grand of theirs appeared in their adopted city.
Finally, that is to end. This month, Christo and Jeanne-Claude began overseeing the installation of 7,500 "gates" on 23 miles of pedestrian walkways in this city's crown jewel, Central Park. On Feb. 12, weather permitting, hundreds of workers will simultaneously unfurl a saffron-colored cloth from each gate. The usually bare and silvery winter park will appear injected with a stream of honey.
A long time coming
Christo and Jeanne-Claude have waited 26 years to present The Gates, Project for Central Park, New York City. They first tried to re-landscape the park with steel gates in 1979 but couldn't penetrate the bureaucracy. New Yorkers have long considered Central Park itself a work of art, transformed after a design contest in 1857 from a barren swampland into an idyllic urban oasis. As one critic complained of the original proposal, it would be like painting "a mustache on the Mona Lisa."
In the 1990s, the artists tried again informally to obtain approval for Central Park. They had met "a gentleman" who was a fan of their work and also a member of the powerful Central Park Conservancy. They asked him to inquire if other members of the conservancy might reconsider the project that, frankly, wouldn't cost them or the city a penny. (The artists take no sponsorship and always cover their costs by selling Christo's drawings and collages.) The members, though, weren't interested.
But one day, "that gentleman became mayor of New York," says Jeanne-Claude. Within a couple of years of Michael R. Bloomberg's ascension to City Hall, the project was approved. It was also modified. There were half as many gates; instead of drilling holes, the poles of the gates would stand on steel bases; instead of the ends of the fabric panels hanging 5 feet 6 inches from the ground, they would be 7 feet, leaving enough room for anyone, except possibly a few New York Knicks, to walk under.
Certainly, the artists, who both turn 70 on the same day this June, have gotten used to rejection. Thirty-eight of their projects have been turned down over the years in places around the world. Their authorized biography by the late Burt Chernow is filled with such stories - of fire departments and city fathers calling them crazy for their avant-garde ideas.
Many art critics continue to dismiss Christo as a sort of P.T. Barnum who couldn't erect a tent in his own back yard.
"That's because they are not part of the art establishment," says Amei Wallach, a New York critic who has followed their work for years. "If they do a museum show, they have to curate it themselves. They don't sell through the galleries. They want to control every aspect of everything they do, including what's written about them, and so they get rebuffed."
In a brief phone interview, Jeanne-Claude at first hisses at the idea that somehow the New York project means more to them than, say, wrapping Berlin's Reichstag as they did in 1995 or dotting the Tejon Pass in the San Joaquin Valley of California with several thousand enormous umbrellas in 1991.
"They are all our children," says Jeanne-Claude, "and thus valued equally. They are all so different."
At this point, she sets out a list of rules for any and all who want to interview her. She must not be quoted by name, which, by the way, was Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon when she was born in Morocco. "I am speaking for both of us, in one voice," she says.
Christo, who was born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff in Bulgaria, can't come to the phone because he is busy working around the clock on the Central Park project in their three-story loft, she says. "He does not sleep at this point."
Finally, Jeanne-Claude desists with the rules and addresses why this New York project might be a hair more significant than others.
"We never in our life lived 41 years in the same place," she says, explaining how they'd emigrated here in 1964 from Paris with a first stop at the famous Chelsea Hotel. "Our real life of thinking and creating has been in New York and, of course, to do something in Central Park in New York is, well, an added value."
In allowing the artists to do this project, the city and the Central Park Conservancy enforced a few rules of their own, and the artists and their longtime chief engineer, Vince Davenport, aware of earlier concerns that they would somehow make a shambles of the park, have been meticulous in how they have proceeded.
Thus, this has been one of the most difficult projects they have executed, Davenport says.
"We've hired three times the number of paid workers - 1,100 - for this project than we anticipated," said Davenport on a recent chilly morning as he scrutinized forklifts that are transporting 15,000 steel bases into the park. Every truck has to be escorted by a city parks department vehicle.
"You get to do things differently in a rural area than you do in the middle of a big city," said Davenport, shaking his head.
When one of the trucks yielded for a jogger, Davenport narrowed his eyes approvingly. "That's what they're supposed to do. This is a living, breathing place with bicyclers and joggers and birds and we aren't going to interfere," he said, directing his remarks with a nod at Doug Blonsky, president of the conservancy. When a truck edged off the pavement into the grass, Davenport scowled, "Hey, watch it!"
But despite the expense to the artists - an estimated $21 million - to mount this project and despite the extraordinary hurdles, Davenport insists that for Christo and Jeanne-Claude, this is "the coup de grace, the thing they've been working for all their lives, especially that banner over at the Met."
He was referring to a giant banner that was draped over the front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art last spring announcing an exhibit about "The Gates."
"That banner, that was as good as it gets," said Davenport, who is from Seattle.
It was also temporary. But these are artists, after all, who understand the power of what is temporary and public. "Our works are temporary in order to endow the works of art with a feeling of urgency to be seen, and the love and tenderness brought by the fact that they will not last," the artists say in a brochure about the project.
In this case, the urgency is indeed great. After their unfurling on Feb. 12, the gates, which are supposed to turn viewers' attention to the vast numbers of people who walk through this city, will be removed after just two weeks, on Feb. 27.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.