It seems to me that any discussion of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Central Park Gates must necessarily begin by pointing out the following fact: unless you are a Brazilian soccer star, you really ought to have both a first and a last name. I don’t know who came up with this rule, but I think it’s a good one, and the fabric-toting duo’s wholesale flaunting of it does little to recommend them. Now, of course, there will inevitably be need for a few narrowly applied exemptions with these things — in this case, a certain Irish rock icon with a penchant for wrap-around sunglasses comes most immediately to mind — but such exceptions aside, if you want to be taken seriously, you’re generally best off just packing two names like the rest of us.
I mention this in the spirit of full disclosure, a good-faith attempt at airing my prejudices before moving on to the matter of The Gates themselves. Because, to be perfectly honest, it was a fairly jaundiced eye that I took with me to the scene. There’s simply something about the pair that brings it out of me. Their ridiculously pruned names, yes, but also the stale air of self-promotion that surrounds them, the generous measure of hype and spectacle inherent in their work. As the artists themselves have said, the temporary nature of their pieces is an aesthetic decision — an attempt to imbue them with an urgency, to elicit from viewers the tenderness that we often reserve for fleeting, fragile things. And this may well be. But there’s a secondary effect to taking over the most famous public space in a city of eight million people and giving them a 16-day window to catch a glimpse of your work — you’ve created more than just an art installation, you’ve created an event.
“But the event is the art,” I have heard insisted many times, and living in an age some 80 years after Duchamp, I would hardly dare presume to tell a person that this was not true. In addition to being art, however, the event is also T-shirt sales and autographed posters and press conferences and camera crews. It is early morning talk shows and busloads of the clamoring curious and Christo and Jeanne-Claude shaking hands with the mayor. And perhaps all this is the art as well. The sort of ephemera surrounding your typical museum blockbuster, only here pushed out of the background and into the fore. I don’t know. But there seems to me something suspiciously ersatz about it all.
That, anyway, was my thinking as I made the obligatory pilgrimage on a recent weekday afternoon, catching a few bursts of traffic-cone orange through the trees as I crossed Fifth Avenue from the east and joined the rest of my big city cohorts in strolling about beneath the “saffron” swatches. The place was busy, though not overwhelmingly so, and most everyone had at least one eye turned upward, taking in the new drapes with that sort of wary sophistication one finds in all the better art galleries.
Behind me on one of the pathways, a girl struggled heroically to convince her boyfriend of the installation’s merits.
“But isn’t it nice to look at?” she said.
“Sure, but lots of things are nice to look at.”
“Well, I like them. They make me smile.”
“You don’t like them.”
“I do. I like them fine.”
At another spot, a pair of men paused beneath one of the structures, one of them reaching up to rub the fabric between his forefinger and thumb.