Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Gates

Christo and Jeanne Claude’s Gates are open, as everyone knows. Gothamist was really quick with a happy and useful post, but then on Monday, Curbed chimed in, witty and elegant, while Gawker, bless them, came in with early news of the backlash.

Speed is not my forte or my goal here. I have, however, been thinking about those curmudgeons who don’t like it: not the unthinking nay-sayers who cry “over-rated” (an easy criticism of anything popular), but the more thoughtful or pretentious ones who say that it lacks political content or that, because the precise number of gates, shade of orange, width or height of any one gate, wouldn’t change the piece, it doesn’t count as art. This strikes me as a strangely calcified and frumpy vision of what art is. As for the politics of it, I think that Michael Kimmelman at the New York Times offers a persuasive case for its deep roots in an anti-monumental populism:
A century and a half ago, Olmsted talked about the park as a place of dignity for the masses, a great locus of democratic ideals, influencing "the minds of men through their imaginations." It's useful to recall that Christo conceived of "The Gates" 26 years ago, when Central Park was in abominable shape. The project had something of a reclamation mission about it, in keeping with Christo's uplifting agenda. He was born in Bulgaria in 1935 and escaped the Soviet bloc for Paris in 1958. His philosophy has always been rooted in the utopianism of Socialist Realism, with its belief in art for Everyman.

But in place of the gigantic monuments of Mother Russia, forced upon the Soviet public and financed by the state, he has imagined a purely abstract art, open-ended in its meanings, paid for by the artist, and requiring the persuasion of the public through an open political process.

After which the art comes and goes. "Once upon a time" is a phrase Christo likes. Once upon a time, he imagines people will say, there were "The Gates" in Central Park.

I went to Central Park on Thursday to watch them being raised. It was a gray, chill day and I found it moving and exciting to see small groups of people lifting the steel gates into place. I went again on Sunday with my beloved toddler, a friend, and her two beloved toddlers. The sun was out and so were thousands of happy New Yorkers. It was the best kind of festival and celebration: truly, as others have said, a huge democratic procession. I can see how it might be meditative or stately, but in the sunshine with three people under three, it was just festive and joyous. On our way out, we stopped to admire two policewomen on horseback. A sedan pulled up behind them, red lights flashing in its grille. In almost the same instant, I noticed a cyclist near me begin to applaud and the brilliant orange hair of a woman in the car. It was Jeanne Claude and Christo. I--and everyone around me—began to clap as they drove slowly by, windows open. How lucky to have the chance to thank them, to see them enjoying their own creation, and to see how much the creation is the festival, the accidental, democratic, and ephemeral community that rose up around it.

Over at Light Reading, Jenny Davidson has a smart and much needed response to a rather idiotic bit of antifeminism from the LA times (via Maud Newton) (a lament that, without Sontag, we are now without a female public intellectual).


Bud Parr said...

I am a fan of public art - the current exposition of Otterness sculptures along Broadway are brilliant and Quirky - Cow Parade, loved it! And ephemeral art (Goldsworthy), but Christo's Gates, I'm sorry to say was underwhelming for me when it came down to it. (I was there on Sunday too). Somehow, taken close up, it had little grandeur and didn't evoke anything natural (I always imagined something autumnal). The bare, sinewy trees this time of year are are in and of themselves and I didn't feel as this art celebrated them at all, but obscured the natural beauty of the park. Perhaps I've revealed an ignorance here, I don't know.

And as opposed to seeing Christo being celebrated, I saw huge crowds getting swatches to take home for their scrapbooks, thus destroying, in my eyes, the very ephemerality that gives these things their claim to being called art.

Sorry to be a naysayer, but I wouldn't have bothered to comment had you not written a thoughtful post on it.

Bud Parr said...

I just read my comments and it looks like I've also revealed my current level of exhaustion by leaving out entire words! Sorry for that.

Unknown said...

I am horrified to think of the vandals.

What I like about the Gates is the unnaturalness of the orange: my aesthetic is perhaps less refined than yours. I get tired of all that austere winter beauty. (The clerk in the Columbus Circle P.O. told me he wished that there were MORE colors--which to me, clearly would have been a terrible choice, but funny to contemplate.)

The Otterness sculptures are great. I like the Boteros in the TimeWarner building, too. And those cheesy apples, for that matter.

What makes the Gates different and special to me is that the brevity of their appearance turns them into a kind of unpretentious "happening."

I don't think you're revealing an ignorance at all--I can see your point of view.

(And I think it's impossible to write a comment w/o a typo!)

Bud Parr said...

Sorry though - I didn't mean people were vandalizing; the Gates workers were giving out the swatches. Still, I think the same effect.

And I agree with you about the nature of it being a "happening" - but I, like I suppose anyone who lives where tourists traffic, would find it more unpretentious if it were something more subtle, something for the people that make there lives there. Who knows?

But, alas, as we are moving to Brooklyn next week, I see it as Christo's farewell to my wife and I who have enjoyed being close to the park for the last decade. We got engaged in the literary walk (not to go all personal on ya) and have invested hours in line at Delacorte theater and lounged with our newborn son on the green fields. So you see, we feel it is ours in a way, so Christo's art might as well be in our own home.