AT THE GATES
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- My first thought was, "Where are the monks?" I'm told a lot of New Yorkers first thought, "They've turned Central Park into a big car wash."
But no, it was "The Gates," the saffron-colored, ripstop nylon curtains decorating Central Park for a transitory 16 days in February.
"The Gates" was a $20 million piece of public art by wrap artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, 1 million-square-feet of industrial-orange vinyl and 5,300 tons of steel meandering over 23 miles of footpaths. If you remember Mickey Mouse in the "Sorcerer's Apprentice," when the cute little brooms start to multiply frighteningly, you get an idea of what "The Gates" looked like marching up and down pathways, around lakes and meadows, and indomitably there whether you wanted them to be or not.
Talk about gilding the lily! No matter what the season, Central Park is a place of exquisite beauty. In winter, the starkness of the curving, twisted, bare-branched trees and the open snowy meadows framed by stunning buildings on Central Park South, Central Park West and Fifth Avenue, provides enough visual imagery to stimulate the imagination for hours.
I think New Yorkers got the biggest thrill out of "The Gates." For me, it was, "Oh, wow!" and then, "What's next?" But my good friend Andrea, who lives on 69th Street just off Central Park, was beside herself with joy. She had been there for their unfurling, had walked every day and every mile, and sang their praises with her every step.
"They're like orange highlighters, highlighting a line of a textbook that you don't want to forget," she said as we walked under the flapping curtains. "Sometimes I think Frederick Law Olmsted (the park's co-creator) is looking down and saying, 'Oh yes, I remember that path now.' They're like a decorator's dream. I feel that's what Christo did - he pushed the decorating concept out, way out, to the craziest, unlimited limits, and made a party for us. All we need now is a huge mass of balloons."
"The Gates" was definitely a party. It may have been cold and snowy, but day and night, thousands of people were walking and milling about the park. Every hotel room in the city was booked. Cameras abounded. Horse-drawn carriages were doing big business. So was Gray Line tours although, oddly, their buses were shaped like San Francisco cable cars.
"Look at everybody!" Andrea said, waving her hand. "They're outside in winter, in this world of sitting-on-your-ass-watching-television. People are smiling for absolutely no reason. When the Gates were unfurled, people were laughing for no reason - it was like opening 7,500 presents."
That first day, Andrea happened to encounter Jeanne-Claude. She told her, "Thank you. We love them." "They are all yours for the next 16 days," Jeanne-Claude responded aristocratically. "Her hair is seriously the color of the Gates," Andrea whispered.
Gates-keepers were everywhere. These were friendly people armed with long poles, and their job was to free the drapes whenever the wind twisted them up around their poles. They also answered questions and handed out fabric swatches. We met one who told us she had come from Hong Kong just for the experience.
When I asked her why, she quoted Jeanne-Claude: "It's once in a lifetime, and also once upon a time."
"The Gates" were at their loveliest when they made the wind visible, one rippling after the other until they were all swirling up in the air. They were next loveliest when they were lined up close together, rectangles marching up and down the hills. They were third loveliest reflected in the water.
After a while "The Gates" become one with the park and places without them, like the Ramble, looked barren. At one point, where a street crossed the park, the red glow of four traffic lights against the orange was outrageously lovely. They were oddly appropriate as a backdrop to a huge statue of King Wladyslaw Jagiello of Poland; Mounted, dressed in armor, and holding up two crossed swords, his brass horse's cape flowed with the orange curtains. We came to a crossway. "Two roads diverge in an orange wood," Andrea said.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its roof garden to visitors, but looking down on "The Gates" was disappointing. We could see only flashes of orange through the trees.
A few days and many blisters later, I visited the new and expensive Museum of Modern Art. It is only free on Fridays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., and it was jammed. I thought the building was clearly designed for the gratification of its wealthiest patrons instead of the art-loving public. It was cold and angular and exclusive, and it made even the most passionate paintings and sculpture feel cold and angular and exclusive, too.
On my way back to Andrea's, the bus passed by the park and there were "The Gates" again, bright orange against new-fallen snow, waving in the wind like the tails of dogs who are happy to see you. They reminded me that contemporary art can also be playful, warm, friendly, accessible and free - like a party in a park.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.