2005-01-21 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

Rockaway Artists Alliance
by Susan Hartenstein


Artist: Joe Rothenberg, Title: “Lake Como”  Medium:  Black And White Photo. From the “Black & Light on Silver” exhibition.Artist: Joe Rothenberg, Title: “Lake Como” Medium:  Black And White Photo. From the “Black & Light on Silver” exhibition. The object of a 25-year controversy in the world of public art is about to be given life. As with most public art, any controversy connected with it is not simply aesthetic, but practical as well. Such has been the history of “The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005.” Of course, this particular project has had wrinkles (no pun intended even though we are talking fabric) that are unique.

On February 12, 7500 gates of saffron-colored fabric, the collective brainchild and consuming passion of artists Christ and Jeanne-Claude, will be unfurled along 23 miles of pathways in Central Park. The work will remain up until February 27. Construction of this enormous undertaking of equally enormous scale began last month and involves labor done in the far-flung locations of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Germany and Queens. Each frame-like vinyl gate is 16 feet high and is secured to a heavy metal base. A panel of orange-yellow cloth will hang from the top of each gate to about 7 feet above the ground. The action

of the wind billowing through the cloth will create the effect of a flowing river of bright color. For the artists, the rectangular structures and the flowing fabric are analogous to the contrast between the street grids of NYC and the park’s natural landscape. For over a quarter of a century these artists, who are married to each other, were born on the same date (he in Bulgaria, she in Morocco) and are as close to each other artistically and philosophically, have struggled to bring their dream to fruition. Just two days before Valentine’s Day, they will officially accomplish their goal.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude first proposed this project in 1979. The Parks Department rejected it. Reportedly, the park was not physically or managerially ready for it. Going against them were feasibility reports, petitions and letters of protest. Through it all, the couple doggedly refused to give up their fight. Among other tactics, they made formal appeals to civic and community leaders. Subsequent to the original rejection, the park went through millions of dollars of restoration and the creative couple revised their plans for the gates so as to remove certain causes for rejection. Major among them was the digging of thousands of holes in the park’s grounds. They devised a way to secure the poles without having to dig. And it doesn’t hurt to have friends in high places. Michael Bloomberg, a supporter of the project back when he was a trustee on the Central Park Conservancy board, was elected mayor. “The Gates” has other supporters. Tom Eccles, executive director of the Public Art Fund has stated, “I think it will be one of the most significant public artworks in the United States for decades.” Of course, there are plenty of detractors. Dianne L. Durante, in her essay Cave Paintings and Christo’s “Gates”: Art in Individual Minds and Public Places , expresses what many might say. She believes the project should have been rejected because it doesn’t fulfill the definition and purpose of art. Art, she states, should inspire, provoke and amuse. If it conveys no message; if it has no impact on the minds of those who view it, it is not art. “The Gates,” Durante concludes, does not fulfill these criteria and therefore is not art.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are not strangers to debate attracted by their large-scale outdoor creations. In 1991 they installed “The Umbrellas,” 3100 umbrellas planted across 30 miles of countryside in Japan and California. Perhaps their most famous work to date is 1995’s “Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-1995.” They wrapped the German Parliament building in silver fabric to look like a huge birthday cake. The couple does not appear to worry about certain definitions of art. They are quoted as saying, “We do not create symbols. We do not create messages. We only create a work of art, of joy and beauty, which has absolutely no purpose whatsoever.” “We believe it will be beautiful, and we wish to see it. And the only way to see it is to build it.”

Lest you worry that the taxpayers of New York are footing the bill for this work of art, joy and beauty – don’t. Christo and Jeanne-Claude are paying the $20 million cost themselves, including a $3 million donation to New York City for the use of the park. They do not accept corporate or public sponsorship. They pay the cost of their projects by selling the drawings, collages and renderings made in the planning stage. For “The Gates” they also allowed the not-for-profit organization “Nurture New York’s Nature” to license merchandise related to the project, in order to raise money. The mayor believes that “The Gates” will bring in 500,000 visitors and the office of economic development states that it will generate over $73 million in spending and $5 million in tax revenue.

“The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005” should not be an intellectual exercise fraught with the inherent limitations of verbal definition. Instead, it seems it was designed like all works of art (or whatever it is) to be experienced. Walk in, around and through it. Check it out. Love it; hate it; see how it makes you feel. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Coming to sTudio 6 Gallery, Fort Tilden, RoCA: “Black and Light on Silver,” the dramatic black and white photography of five of RAA’s most talented experts in the medium. Opening reception is Sunday, February 13 from 1 to 3 p.m. The exhibition runs for eight weekends and will include special events. More next week.

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