- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2008

Three years ago, on a visit to New York, I slogged through the snow to commune with “The Gates” in Central Park. This vast work of public art — 7,503 orange frames hung with billowing saffron fabric — was far more impressive than any drawing or photograph could convey. Rows of gates wound up and down hills, across bridges and through the woods to form bright shapes against the trees and snow. The atmosphere was upbeat as people sauntered through the 16-foot-high portals and smiled at the sheer audacity of the spectacle.

Those who missed this 16-day happening have an opportunity to appreciate its artistic merits on film. On Tuesday, HBO will air “The Gates,” an illuminating documentary by filmmakers Albert Maysles and Antonio Ferrera that traces the process behind the environmental artwork. Even viewers who saw the massive installation can learn a lot from the movie about the dedication it took to plan and construct.

The first part of the film is a flashback to 1979, when the Bulgarian-born artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude (the two do not use last names), started peddling their idea for “The Gates” to city authorities.

“For us, the work of art is the whole process — the drawings, the public hearings, the construction,” Christo said during an interview at the National Gallery of Art before the film was screened at the museum last month.

To maintain control, the artists paid for “The Gates” themselves, as they did for previous installations, including the fabric-wrapped Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building, and the Pont Neuf in Paris. The $21 million for the Central Park installation came from the sale of Christo’s drawings, collages and sculptures, which fetched about $30,000 to $500,000 apiece.

Despite the independent financing, the New York project provokes outrage throughout the film, particularly during its initial stage. Watching the two artists in their younger days confronting the various city commissions and community groups, you can’t help but admire their tenacity. “It’s like having Picasso paint ‘Guernica’ on the surface of ‘The Last Supper,’” opines one opponent, comparing da Vinci’s masterpiece to the landscape of Central Park. It will do “physical violence” to the park, another says.

Unfazed, the couple, now both 72, kept their vision alive for more than two decades while working on other projects. Since 1992, they have been planning “Over the River,” an installation of silvery fabric panels suspended over the Arkansas River in Colorado, for which they still need final approval. An exhibition of collages, drawings and maps related to the project will open Oct. 11 at the Phillips Collection. “Each project is like an exploration of something we do not know,” Jeanne-Claude says. “It’s a learning process.”

In 2003, the artists finally won approval for “The Gates” from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an art collector who admires their work. “It is not a matter of patience,” Jeanne-Claude says of the long wait. “It is a matter of passion.” It becomes clear from our conversation that the artists’ desire to create large-scale art that involves hundreds of people — in both its making and viewing — is so strong that they are willing to accept the political process that goes along with it. The Reichstag project alone took 26 years to complete.

In New York, where they have lived since 1964, the artists first started thinking about wrapping high-rises in lower Manhattan and Times Square before tackling the space of Central Park. By the mid-1970s, Christo says, “We were contemplating using the sidewalks to do some work of art, but the sidewalks are so busy, we knew we’d never get permission. The only place where people walk leisurely is in the parks.” That idea led to working within the curving paths and open vistas of Central Park, a landscape “entirely man-made by [landscape designers] Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux,” Christo notes.

The film picks up momentum when the steel bases for “The Gates” start going into the park in Feb. 2005 and volunteers, including former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, begin erecting the vinyl portals. Still, naysayers persist, and soon political talk-show regulars are weighing in. Pat Buchanan of “The McLaughlin Group” turns out to be a supporter, while ABC’s George Stephanopoulos dismisses the artwork as “giant orange wickets.”

By the time Mr. Bloomberg unfurls the first curtain, the crowd is cheering while looking in wonderment at the fabric blowing in the breeze. Even cynical New Yorkers are moved by the sight of admiring crowds. “The whole park is like the lobby of a theater,” an onlooker says. “It’s just buzzing.”

The rest of the movie is a love letter to the beauty of the bright frames set against the barren landscape and the shared pleasure in viewing them. “We picked winter to install ‘The Gates’ because the sun is very low to create long shadows, and you could see how the rectangular gates related to the buildings around the park,” says Christo, who says his favorite part of the installation was around the Harlem Meer.

The hanging fabric, he says, is set at a “teasing” height. “It invites you to jump and touch it,” and in the film, people certainly do.

Some visitors on camera question why “The Gates” weren’t left in place for a longer period. “By having it up only two weeks, the project creates an urgency to be seen because tomorrow it will be gone,” Christo says during this interview. “ ’Once in a lifetime’ and ‘once upon a time’ are two of my favorite phrases.”

The artists want people to remember their art as a “once in a lifetime” experience, hoping visitors will find it more memorable than what’s captured on film. “The movie,” Christo says, ” is not the art.”

TITLE: “The Gates”

WHEN: Premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on HBO


CREDITS: Directed and produced by Albert Maysles and Antonio Ferrera

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

WEB SITE: www.hbo.com/events/thegates

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