Julie Lasky | Essays

Christo's Agent Orange

Christo, The Gates, Central Park, New York 1979-2005, Drawing #047. Photo: Wolfgang Volz. ©2004 Christo.

Swaying like 7,500 Hare Krishna in a can-can line, the saffron-colored fabric panels of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Central Park gates are a lovely work of choreography designed by the wind. Yesterday, the inaugural day of the $21 million project, breezes made rippling waves or snackfood twists of the panels, sometimes in sequence, sometimes in unison. Thanks to their color, "The Gates" stood up to whatever sky happened to pass on a changeable February morning, be it fluffy white, seal gray, or Paul Newman ocular blue.

This is a project that involved a quarter-century planning but no chance for a dress rehearsal. Things were bound to go wrong. A volunteer confided to me that despite all the media hoopla, the international press corps managed to miss the unfurling of the very first gate at 8:30 a.m. Pity, that, because the cardboard tube that was released as the fabric dropped reportedly conked Mayor Bloomberg on the head.

At 10 a.m., another volunteer, grappling with an extendable rod near the park's West 106th Street entrance, set free a tangle of nylon that a gust had bunched at the top of a gate. Asked how often he's been called on to perform such rescue operations, the grappler said, "It seems like every five minutes." Pressed for an actual number of incidents, he conceded "three."

A clump of observers with cameras surrounded him. Another clump stationed itself near a gate whose fabric was still wound in a roll like a chrysalis, watching as a volunteer reaching with a pole took hold of a dangling loop, unzipped a Velcro strip, and released a swath of pleated nylon along with the fabric case that contained it. The audience clapped, cheered, and shuffled to the next gate like golf fans at a tournament making their leisurely way from hole to hole. Come to think of it, golf carts were there, too, conducting volunteers and their billowing loads of byproducts from the unfurling. There were security vehicles, driven by park officials. And there was a sound that many New Yorkers can't help linking to the events of 9/11, especially when it is coupled with flashes of emergency orange: the noise of helicopter rotors. Chop, chop, chop.

Yes, though Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Central Park gates have been planned with awe-inspiring grit and dedication and are blameless in every way — though they will do no damage to the park and are composed entirely of recyclable materials; though they are constructed with paid, loving labor (except in the case of Jeanne-Claude's late mother, who insisted on working for free); though they cost the city nothing and are estimated to bring in at least $80 million from tourists; though proceeds through the sale of souvenirs will nobly benefit the Central Park Conservancy and Nurture New York's Nature; though the saffron-colored fabric is meant to connote peace and comes close to matching Jeanne-Claude's hair — this miracle of efficiency, this triumph of persistence over municipal bureaucracy, this delicate orange grove, which an acquaintance rightly likened to an evanescent eruption of cherry trees in the spring, cannot overcome associations with hazardous conditions, at least not to my mind.

Something was fishy from the start. As I approached the gates from the Upper West Side near the park's northern edge, I spotted a bluff topped with orange flags. I had seen all the sketches and early installation photos and even pieces of the project being assembled near Central Park South, but still, my first thought was, "Oh, another construction site up here." It was Saturday morning. I was sleepy and squinty. And yet.

When I reached the park, I felt a wowza moment seeing the pathways redefined by the billowing fabric radiating in lines and curves. But the elation was short-lived. In contrast to the dancing nylon, the gates themselves have a tendency to plod. They march along walkways and circle ponds in a way that seems leaden and clumsy. They peter out and resume. The eye can only take in so many at a stretch in short, fluttery bursts, but knows there are at least 7,400 more. The urge is to rise higher for a bigger, more complex panorama. One finds oneself walking mechanically to the tower of Belvedere Castle whither all other park visitors have gravitated like the ghouls in "Night of the Living Dead."

How different is the spell cast by Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park. The biomorphic artwork reflects surrounding towers and people in a silver fun-house surface that is all pleasure without the mockery. You draw closer, closer to the sculpture's concave heart to see the effect, until you're entirely swallowed up. (Okay, maybe there's some gentle ribbing of your narcissism.)

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Central Park gates lack that magnetic, landscape-transforming power. Could this be owing not just to the way the gates drive viewers to seek greater heights of sensation, but also to the off-putting emergency color, the subtle grid of the rip-stop nylon reminiscent of quick escapes from troubled aircraft? After the theater of the unfurling, others quickly took the altered scenery in stride. Soon it seemed like any other Saturday in the park with New Yorkers chatting down the newly arcaded pathways, tugging at dogs and children.

"Look at the ducks, they're all puffed up," an elderly woman said to a companion, pointing to a huddle of feathery creatures standing on the icy surface of a pond, which was ringed by gates. "That's how they stay warm," the companion explained. Neither noticed the gates anymore, or that some of the ducks' feet were a peculiar color. They were saffron.

Julie Lasky is the editor-in-chief of I.D., the international design magazine. A former editor of Interiors magazine and managing editor of Print, she is the author of the book Some People Can't Surf: The Graphic Design of Art Chantry.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Social Good

Comments [31]

As i have written elsewhere, i find Christo's work to be interesting logistically, and yes it has a certain coolness to it inherent in a large public art installation, but ultimately, i find his work to be devoid of any meaning, and therefore, falling flat. I am sure it is a unique experience to exist within The Gates as a participant, walking the paths, and i will bet its probably very enjoyable, but I wonder if thats it - The Gates is JUST "walking along paths under saffron vinyl and fabric arches."

In a sound-byte from one of many recent interviews with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Jeanne-Claude conceded that it (The Gates) is "just art" and that there is no meaning to it. I felt a bit disheartened by the dismissive comment, as Mitch may have been alluding to.

Art can stand as a testament to beauty alone, but to quantify it as "just" art was what I found disappointing. While I don't think that visual expression always needs to embody a compelling message, to invest 25 years of planning into something that 'just' is feels incomplete. And, if there is no intended purpose, then why Central Park? Why not seek to beautify a lesser known area of the city, or one that could benefit from saffron breezes?


Like many artists (Andy Goldsworthy comes to mind), Christo and Jeanne-Claude are perhaps not their own best advocates. JC's much-televised comments about it being "just" a work of art (a not unprofound statement, actually) and Christo's explanation that the gates mimic the rectangles of Manhattan's grids--no, these are probably not very intellectually impressive insights, especially in a climate where we're all trying to be so damn smart.

Never mind. Instead "The Gates" manages to do what any of us would be lucky to do as often and monumentally as C and JC do: simply give pleasure. I have no problem at all appreciating the gates against the changing light of day, and taking in the sweep of the landscape now traced with orange --excuse me, saffron. I feel no need to process the experience through any filter of so-called meaning. The piece may not mean anything. Or its meaning may not lie in the formal signifiers of the color, shape, or fabric but rather in the conceptual and experiential achievement of creating such a thing despite the logistical and political problems. But so what. It is beautiful, the park is beautiful, New York is beautiful. It's almost humbling that 2 people in this city are willing to pay $23 million to tryo to make that visible to the rest of us. It's also kind of wonderful that, on a blustery February morning, so many people came out for a walk in the park.
Sam Potts

The Gates is not about thinking. It's about experiencing.

My group arrived at about 2 on Saturday. By then the park was packed, people everywhere. They were all smiling, strolling, photographing, climbing on rocks for a better view, pointing, touching and shaking their heads. The energy is infectious. As people walked through the saffron tunnels, every now and then unable to contain themselves, someone would jump up to swat the gently billowing curtains. A four year old was desperate about the plight of one of the curtains that had tangled. His father had all he could do to convince him that someone would be along eventually to fix it. The thing I enjoy most about the project is how it lets you see the park in a new way. Places I was familiar with and hadn't really looked at in a long time were reintroduced to me. I saw them anew. I also realized that I didn't know the park in the winter very well. It's almost as if an orange highlighter has been used to point out interesting features, a ridge here, the edge of a pond there, the footbridge. You can see different levels and features of the landscape across the park, since all the leaves are gone. The color is wonderful. The gate frames are a tinted saffron and so are pleasantly dull and dry. It's a nice contrast to the grays, blacks and browns of the trees and the dull green of the winter grass. The curtain has more yellow in it and the material is closer to nylon than vinyl. Be sure to visit at different times of the day and evening to enjoy the play of light.

Special Tip: If you see attendants in the park ask them for a free swatch sample of the curtain material. There are 1 million available, well 999,997 anyway...

This is the second Christo / Jeanne-Claude project I've had a chance to experience. The first was the Umbrellas project in CA. I was sold on their work during that visit. When you see the photos and hear the discussion that occurs before the work is installed it all seems so silly and pointless. "What does it mean?" "Why do it?" "How does this move Art forward?" I think these questions and the temptation to over intellectualize the installation are an unfortunate distraction. If you let them they may just cause you to miss out on a fantastic afternoon in the park.
Christopher Andreola

A not-meant-to-be-cynical aside: so, who do you suppose will show up at the Academy Awards ceremony wearing a saffron colored nylon frock?
Daniel Green

The best part about The Gates is its 16-day lifespan. As a permanent installation, it would be ludicrous. As a temporary event that is galvanizing the city, it's a pleasurable as a stretch of unseasonably warm weather in the middle of February.

In today's Times, Joyce Pernick gets it exactly right: "Spend a moment in the park and it's apparent. The installation has transformed the park into a public party...Like Operation Sail celebrating the bicentennial in 1976, or the fireworks commemorating the Brooklyn Bridge's 100th birthday in 1983, this is one of those moments in New York - the kind that gets people together to share something different, exuberant or in this instance, purely "preposterous'..."

I must add that as a designer I found prescient accuracy of Christo's prepatory drawings positively eerie. This morning, Central Park looks exactly like the drawing above.
Michael Bierut

Poring over their site the last couple of days, I kept getting tripped up by the word, "aesthetic." While the scale always induces a certain element of awe, it seems to me the aesthetic itself is pretty dry. Looking through the documentation and preparatory drawings, one Christo looks a lot like the the next, and ultimately uninteresting.

It makes me wonder if the work has no real lasting importance, only immediate importance, via the social experience they engender. Purnick may be right, but to someone like me who wasn't in NYC for either event, they're essentially irrelevant to my perception and memory of the city.

Now that the mockups turn out to be uncannily perfect representations, what distinguishes a realized Christo from an unrealized one will be the presence (of absence) of tens of millions of amateur images surging (for the moment) through Google and flickr.

Regarding the color, I think you need to consider that having it at this time of the year was a compromise. The original idea for the installation was to have it occur in the autumn, when it would have blended in with the changing colors of the foliage.

As interesting as it is, I think it loses some of the effect it would have had if it'd been done as originally envisioned.

"In a sound-byte from one of many recent interviews with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Jeanne-Claude conceded that it (The Gates) is "just art" and that there is no meaning to it. I felt a bit disheartened by the dismissive comment"

I'm really glad she said that. I think we tend to overanalyze things to the point that we take the sensory enjoyment out of them. Even Freud said that sometimes 7500 gates draped with orange fabric are just 7500 gates draped with orange fabric -- or something like that.
Jonathan Hughes

The hype in New York about "The Gates" has been so pervasive that I am delighted to read some cool and skeptical responses. As a New Yorker, I have been subjected to the hype, but I joined the throngs in Central Park so that I could testmy own skepticism with actual experience. With all love and deference to my friends who are flying into NYC to walk under the saffron pleats, I find "The Gates" a Disneyland for a cultural elite. A relevant footnote: I was caught in gridlock near a gate in the southwestern part of the Park. Everyone was staring at a tree branch over the artwork, where Pale Male, a famous local falcon, was chomping on a small animal. The crowd was discussing, not the Gate, but whether the animal was a rat or squirrel. Reality bites.
Catharine R. Stimpson

"The Gates", as an idea, is quite interesting but in reality suffers from a poor implementation where quantity seems to have superceded the quality aspect. It is rather sad that the stone footings, which tether this tribute to the University of Tennessee Volunters, are far more interesting than The Gates themselves.

However, all would not have been lost if Christo and Jeanne-Claude had implemented the following changes:

1. Construct only half as many Gates, at least, to allow the viewer time to take in each gate. Currently, it looks as if you are being inundated by nothing but orange, whoops, I mean "saffron". The viewer has no time to reflect on the previous Gate before the next one is upon them. Not only does it seem to blight-out your view of the sky above it almost confines you to a set path and view.

2. Contrast is good. Paint the framework for each Gate a deeper/darker color. The monotony of "saffron" is a bit overwhelming. The original sketches are much better in this aspect.

3. Make The Gates taller. Part of that confining effect in #1. Although, children riding on the shoulders of their parents would have a more tactile interaction with The Gates. At least they would get some sort of feeling out of the whole experience.

4. Use a more translucent material for The Gates. Not only would that help resolve part of the confining effect mentioned in #1, but it would help integrate these icons to road construction into the Park much better.

5. Pleats? I think that there are probably far better ways to attain the necessary "texture" for the fabric than by resorting to pleats.

Granted that just a couple of weeks earlier, I had been subjected to the Design != Art exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt and walked away with not only the new knowledge that design does not necessarily equal art nor art to design, but that sometimes art and design are really nothing at all. It is more so the ability of the artist/designer to garner support for his effort and to convince the rest of humanity that what he speaks of is "art" or "design"...and not-so-much as to whether it is actually good.

The one good benefit of The Gates is that the homeless people that reside close to the Park will have some really nice blankets for those chilly nights.

Greg Allen has done a very smart and funny analysis of the budget of the Gates. He tries to break down the much-publicized $21 million budget and comes up about $15 million short, adding "Maybe the only guy Christo can convince to pay that much for his ideas is Christo himself."
Michael Bierut

The umbrellas were poetic since they didn't have a sense of belonging to the landscape but seemed abandoned en masse by their giant owners. One expects to see arches and banners in a city park much like one expects to see painted pigs and cows in cities during the summer. At least the fiberglass animals each require attention and beg you to walk just one more block. I appreciate what they did, but I wish they collaborated with David Blaine in the assembly and removal.

Re: Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "Gates" -- has there been any comment yet as to how or why they so uncritically trace Holmsteads leisure lines/paths?
Conrad Bakker

Did "The Gates" remind anyone of M. Night Shymalan's "The Village?"
Donnie Jeter

I would like to share a different approach of the Gates with your readers. As Christo was packing things, Jeanne-Claude's pulled the curtains. This piece has low impact because it was developped by the red-haired "mother of the artist". Christo has been "Osbournized".


In a sound-byte from one of many recent interviews with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Jeanne-Claude conceded that it (The Gates) is "just art" and that there is no meaning to it. I felt a bit disheartened by the dismissive comment

Artists are notoriously opaque/taciturn/ unobjective about the "meaning" of their own work: they're not designers who have to justify their work by explaining everything. Once a piece of art is unleashed onto the world, the critics and audience will decide on "meaning." Lewis Carroll wrote "Jabberwocky" as nonsense, yet literary critics still have a field day interpreting it and the "nonsense" meaning is certainly not accepted as the ironclad way of reading it. In fact, "Jabberwocky" is often the literary metaphor for "reading" abstract painting. Even though neither the forms nor words point to obvious meaning, it's the feelings and associations one gets while looking or reading a work.

But I don't know why the "cultural elite" are dragged into this. "The Gates" is an installation in a public space, for public consumption. Public art ought to transcend the high-low culture division and from what I've been hearing about how ordinary people have been reacting to the art, "The Gates" is not something to be pondered with one's left brain, but something to be enjoyed as an aesthetic event for the right brain and as social spectacle.

While I am unable to see the colour in person to a distant spectator the repetitive stands of orange remind one of US prison boiler suits, row upon row of the incarcerated, heads bowed as they complete their morning exercises.

Then again maybe I need to go for a walk.
Another Craig

"No one before has ever seen over seven thousand schmatas hanging from orange crossbars over park paths, and, presumably, such a sight will not reappear in our lifetime. Even if you think the gates are ugly, or a machine-made derogation of real art, or that the display is inappropriate in a natural area, or that Christo Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon (his wife, business manager, and muse) are shameless self-promoters, there is still much to appreciate in the colorful spectacle, including the fact that it was built, in the plain view of millions of people."
Henry Stern, the most ironic NYC Parks Commissioner in history, on The Gates.

Michael Bierut

most people i know (who don't live in nyc) just look at all the puffery and silliness surrounding "the gates" and just roll their eyes and groan.

art chantry

Greg's accounting is no more precise than that which he is criticizing. I started to do a post that listed what I saw that he left out, but it seems like sniping, which is how I took his post. Some of which I considered that he did not: the carrying and G&A costs of running a small business for 3 years (the production phase), and for the duration of assembly and exhibit, the worker's comp and liability (and probably a property and casualty rider for the park, and bonding), legal and accounting costs, the supervisory crew (most of the area leaders were location managers, one of whom told me he was paid comparably to feature/union rates), the sheer quanity of equipment (all the drivers were Teamsters), which included a fleet of buses, vans, seemingly three fleets of trucking, a dozen plus forklifts, port a sans, upwards of two dozen shed trailers, rental generators and lights, most of which is on site from Jan-March. He also got the labor numbers wrong, left out support costs (food, tools, uniforms, etc.). Given the revenue sharing arrangements they have with the documentary crews (film and still), they probably included documentation in the budget (and if you think that is wrong, ask Frank Gehry if the client pays for the project photos). And support costs, legal, engineering, and the like, over the past twenty years. He also included raw materials costs only, skipping lading, storage, overages, and shrinkage. This might not get us to $20 million, and his general dicussion about the impact of promoting cost is relevant, which is another reason I didn't want to respond. But since his tone is a bit too twee, I figure it's worth noting his number crunching is maybe more like gumming.
Miss Representation

I walked through the Gates on unfurling day. I wonder if some objections to the Gates are that we've lost an ability to experience anything so low-tech. It seemed like going back in time, to a very physical place. It was nostalgic rather than futuristic. I found that interesting.
accidental tourist

I find people's reactions to the saffron color quite interesting - it seems people here in the west associate it with hazardous conditions and prison boiler suits and all kinds of 'negative' associations.

As someone who's seen large parts of the Indian Subcontinent, to me it brings back associations of Tibet and North India, monks and their clothes and monasteries, ceremonial gateways to small hillside towns, ritual and purity, literally peace and zen.

It's interesting, the visceral reaction to color.

And perhaps that's why it's called Saffron. The mental associations with Saffron are different from the associations with Orange...
Boy from the East

another interesting take on the gates is to be found here

philip r

Even The Daily Show managed an insightful job of skewering the artists largesse of working to raise 21 million for two weeks or so of path decoration, easily managed by less. The gate forms are not just "plodding", but so old-fashioned and conservative compared to anything going on today! Even compared to the decades earlier, surrealist-inspired early Christo "wrappings", or even his pneumatic phallus in Documenta! As if unsure, now Christo has to call on iconography to hammer the point home - this is "zen"... Is it the best or worst aspects of contemporary art, when it takes up a rather basic "taskwork" concept (wrap sculpture, wrap island, wrap bridge, wrap capital, etc..) multiplies it by (2)egos, and extrapolates it into a quarter century epic drive that needs no less than 21 million dollars to BEGIN to satisfy. Isn't this more than just aligning it to the worst aspects of publicists, ad agencies, politicians and so-called humanitarian projects, because it makes it all about selling the artist first, and then the rest.
The same unconvincing leap of logic society had to go through with designers and architects, that is, rather than seeing systems supported, with more engaged, good design, structures, plans or policies, it was figures and personalities, bigger budgets, bigger, emptier signs, who are THANKED for doing an ok to good job, as if it was largesse. There ARE many exceptions thankfully....and in the case of Christo even the wrapped reichstag had its historical moment to blanket it in a larger epic story than the artists very formalist limitation, but I don't think "the gates" is that.
As for the "good" story, that merchandising brings money into park funds, surely any good group of economic students could discover models for a lot less than 21 million invested into developing long-term economic planning strategies, that could have brought both the chance to realize artwork and income? But is that the government way? Is it a sexy photo op for politicians and artists? So it is the usual individual - privatization resort to the merchandising paradigm that returns to the signature of the artist first, rather than the park and resources it claims to love... like all brands, the real artwork of "brand Christo" has increased stock value as it drops in addressing any public of contemporary art practice, public space issues, situationist detourné, imagination...oh.. actually anything other than, "I like the color..."

Without being disrespectful, we should take another look at the torii gates of the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, as a comparison with Christo's project -- there are things to see outside the NYC perimeter.

NO one should justify visual pleasure from the wasting of valuable resources,by the millions,for art for art's sake.
DOES anyone remember the 'survivors' many agonizing 'hunger-pains' episodes? Just where are the sensitive ones, who see this money being WASTED on the 'frivolous" residents of NYC,whilst others in the third world suffer and drop-dead,from the HUNGER-PAINS and agoney(like 'the survivors' got a taste-of)of dire poverty?!!
ME-THINKS that this is not really "ART"....but the sheer ARROGANCE of really rich dudes,who think it is approiate to 'flaunt'...their EXCESS
with central Park "ORANGE-DHIAREA" material,without regard to those less fortunate?
They might have-well used orange toilet paper,instead of expensive 'saffron'? AND...that really sums it all-up,as it would provide all those NYC politicians somthing to wipe their big fat -ELITIST art-loving-asses-on,as they say; 'fuck the poor and starving!'even ones in their city!
Until these so-called 'conceptual artists' become 'sensitive' to all the suffering going on all around them, they may as well be considered ; simple people with money that have no real values,when it comes to where they should use that money,for the good of the world.
IT"S all about the EGO of these dudes,and their ruthless abandon of basiic human principals,which are traded-shown-off...for the sickining 'recognition' and 'fame' they recieve for this project.
NYC should have never allowed the very land that taxpayers paid-for to be used for such a display of 'elitist-excesses',and then 'bally-hoo' it with complete abandon.
IF we were to lay-out(in NYC-park) all the dead-starving bodies of men-women-children that have since starved to death,and who could have been fed,whilst this 'display' of elitist-art was carrying-on,we would have had a much moore realistic 'view' of how really-bad this idea was-and IS!
Christ fed the POOR,and never did he seek any recognition for it.yet, we see this is the exact opposite of this 'art' project.

As long as we've dragged Jesus into the discussion, I refer you to Mark 14, 3 - 9, where J.C. responds to an argument very much like Dawk's.
Michael Bierut

wellll.... after watching nyc's media gush over the gates thaing, i have to say that i've never thought much of christo's one redundant idea. he's always struck me as the peter max of environmental art... the leroy neiman of conceptual art... the patrick nagel of installation... well, you get the picture.

besides, yoko ono (of all people) was wrapping environmental stuff with fluxus years before christo popped up.

so, what's the big deal? if "the gates" was installed here is st. louis's forest park (bigger and older than ny's central park), do you really think anybody would care at all? no.
art chantry

"Perhaps the Christos' dishrags do symbolize something: an enfeebled and intimidated culture, hung out to dry. If 'The Gates' have any message, it's that we are exhausted, wrung out, flapping in the breeze, at the mercy of whatever's in the air, destined only to be used and disposed of."
Tony Hendra puts it all in perspective in The American Prospect.
Michael Bierut

Follow up:
Besides being a generator of good will,fresh air, and a very convivial civic experience- The Christo / J.C. "Gates" project demonstrated the economic power of Public Art Events: At a cost $20 million, the "Gates" generated $245 million in economic activity. Designers take note:
Funny-- It took a Republican Mayor to see and captitalize on the Money-Art connection. The "Joy" that the "Gates" provoked for only $20 million was a bargain when compared to the per game costs to support our national team sport addictions (your choice 24/7). (We) "liberal" Designers and Environmentalists need to stop romanticising about "Art and the Landscape" as some Bohemian sacrifice painting, and start incorporating the potential of Environmental Art to excite the collective participation of the masses, and just perhaps- "Heal Us"- in a NEW way. Thank you Christo and J.C.- WE see Spectators can be active too. WE Support your Public Art in your CITY. Well, it's time to make some saffron cous-cous- yum... From Denver, Colorado. Amazing, is our World! PEACE

Jobs | April 13