The artist Christo died on May 31. He was 84. His artistic career was spent wrapping, draping, constructing and hanging materials over bridges, landmarks, building, and even on water. His wife, Jeanne-Claude, collaborated with him on his astonishing, monumental projects until she died in 2009. That fact that he is no longer here makes me sad. His latest project, a wrapped L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which has been in the planning since 1962, was due to be realized in 2021. I was hoping to be there to see it.
As an artist, Christo defied classification, really. Some called his work “installations,” which they certainly were, but they were hardly permanently installed. They took months, even years of planning and negotiation, but their exhibition was short-lived, usually only on display for a couple weeks. Some called him a “conceptual artist,” because the initial concept along with all those years of planning and decision-making, shaped the very nature of the art itself, making the ultimate execution of it a somewhat perfunctory affair. Some considered him an “environmental artist,” because his installations not only involved painstaking study and research of the proposed location, but also fastidious attention to the integrity of the environment and the preplanned repurposing of all construction materials once the exhibit was dismantled.
And some didn’t even really consider Christo an artist at all, but rather a showman, or at the very least, an eccentric visionary who descended upon a community with a childlike enthusiasm for his great idea and who thorough perseverance and charm, brought everyone around to sharing his fanciful dream. His projects, often decades in the making, required the cooperation of hundreds of people: landowners and residents, government officials and zoning boards, environmental and specie-interest groups, not to mention all the engineers and workers who were needed to produced his marvels. Art critics and fellow artists had mixed reactions, and most would never place him in the great pantheon of serious artists, but Christo didn’t care. The public loved him, and his work was a fight of experience that was always free to that public. Never relying on municipal funds or taxes, Christo and Jeanne-Claude funded all their projects through the sale of their own work: renderings, plans, lithographs, watercolors, photographs, books and prints. (Still available through sources found at christojeanneclaude.net)
It is an unfortunate truth that people who live in the immediate environs of major cities, like New York, always bemoan the fact that they “don’t get into the City as much as we used to.” It’s as if the better you know a place, the more you love it, the more you take it all for granted and assume it will always be there. On a bright, snowy day in February, 2005, my husband and I drove into Manhattan to see “The Gates,” Christo’s much-publicized installation in Central Park. It had been open for almost two weeks by then and was scheduled to close the next day; we keep “meaning to get there earlier” when the weather might have been nicer, but … well, nothing waiting till the last minute. This exhibit would not go on forever.
Not surprisingly, “The Gates” had been in the planning/discussion stages since 1979. This was New York City, after all, so you can imagine the layers and levels of permissions and petitions and glad-handing and propositioning and patience and cooperation it took to finally reach agreement on an art installation constructed over 23 miles of walkways in Central Park, with 7,503 panels of saffron fabric, each 16 feet tall and of varying widths, hanging 7 feet above the ground at 12 foot intervals. Negotiations started when Ed Koch was mayor, continued through David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani, and didn’t come to fruition until Michael Bloomberg was in office — over 25 years in the making!
Certainly, New York has had more than its share of truly spectacular events and exhibitions, even in Central Park, but “The Gates” was truly an explosion of joy and wonder, a vision of a golden river running right through the trees of midtown Manhattan. Over 4 million visitors came to walk underneath those fluttering saffron “gates” in just two weeks’ time. I will be forever thankful that I picked myself up at the last minute and became one of them.
I have been a devotee of the arts my whole life; as an academic, I have spent much time and energy studying the arts, not just literature, but also fine arts, applied arts, and theatre. I hardly claim to be an art critic, nor can I boast of more than just a generally well-educated person’s level of knowledge, but I have been fortunate enough to have visited most of the major museums and architectural sites in the world, and to have encountered, often unexpectedly, works that struck me profoundly, both intellectually and emotionally, as to make a deep and lasting impression on my very should. Art or not, “The Gates” in Central Park did that.
In an interview included in a brochure accompanying “The Gates,” Christo was asked why his work was temporary. He answered: “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. Those feelings are usually reserved for other temporary things such as childhood and our own life. These are valued because we know that they will not last.” (website: chirstojeanneclaude.net Gates project brochure) That explanation speaks to me; it explains, I think, why “The Gates” was so pivotal and was so quintessentially a New York experience for so many.
I started an art quilt based on one of my photographs of “The Gates” a couple years after that day in Central Park. Good design, good ideas, good intentions. But, I got to a place where I couldn’t go further — lacking the skills, the confidence, the direction, I don’t know … My “Gates” piece is the only quilt that has become a UFO (unfinished object) for me. It has floated around my studio for over 12 years. I have often looked at it longingly, and lovingly, remembering that day in Central Park and feeling a sadness that I couldn’t quite do it just in fabric.
Funny thing, though: the coronavirus has me at home in a sort of unintentional “art residency” wherein I have been devoting more and more of my time to my art quilts, to thinking, designing, and creating. On the news of Christo’s death, I resurrected my “Gates” piece and realized that I had improved skills and new ideas for finishing it. It is now coming along nicely, much in the way I had originally envisioned. It doesn’t meet any of the usual size specifications or particular requirements for entry into competitions, but that doesn’t matter. It is being completed from my heart, the way Christo ultimately completed his long-planned work. It is a tribute, and a thank you, to him.