Saturday, February 26, 2005

Saffron Winter in New York

Gates201_2   I made my farewell visit to The Gates today, taking my run around the entire parameter of Central Park.  They have been up for sixteen days, and I've visited them on almost every one of them.   Sometimes, like today, on the run but often slowly wending my way through the gated paths, looking at them from every perspective: under and above, close up and from afar.  Sixteen days and they are gone.  It's much like experiencing the full life of a friend or a loved one compressed into a nanosecond of time.  I watched the infant building process in the proceeding weeks, experienced the life to its fullest and will surely observe the burial in the days to come.

Gates202_1Jeanne-Claude, Christo's life and work partner and his voice, was asked about the meaning of this monumental 23 mile exhibition.  "It has no meaning," she said, "it is just art."  And so it is.  To be sure, artists like writers, composers and other communicators often have some meaning in mind as they create their work.  In the end, however, much of the heavy lifting of meaning is left to us – the audience who experiences it.  And experience is first thing that comes to mind with The Gates.  During these sixteen days thousands of people, many New Yorkers and countless visitors experienced The Gates and with it Central Park (our great treasure) and the city itself. 

It's cool, at least for some, to be a critic of The Gates, to see it as a big "so what."  I don't agree, but art is in eye of the beholder and everyone will appreciate it differently.  Contemporary art, especially of the momentary or performance kind, has been dismissed throughout the generations.  I think the best response to that was given by a youngster who was asked by a smart aleck reporter, "don't you think this is something I could have done?"  "Yes," she said, "but you didn't!"  And isn't that the point?  It took the perseverance of two obsessed artists to bring The Gates into our lives and to boot it was their gift to the city, its inhabitants and visitors.  Their gift to us!Gates203

The gift is something in and of itself.  It's wonderful, generous of course, but it also points to the way in which our country treats the artistic.  We are positively miserly in our support of the arts in any form, and begrudge every dime spent.  Considering how much is expended on building useless weapon systems and how many dollars fall through the cracks or go down the drain in the process through mismanagement or Congressional pork, we should be ashamed of ourselves.  I'm glad and grateful that Jeanne-Claude and Christo didn't dip into the public coffers and, at the same time, equally saddened by it.

Gates204So what was I thinking as I took my final run through?  I was thinking about bright color in the bleak winter – though it was a gloriously sunny final day.  I was observing all of those people and thinking how much better it is to have them look at art in our park than to come and ghoulishly gawk at the scarred hole at ground zero – whoever came up with that ridiculous name as if it were the Logos of our lives.  I was thinking about the local businesses who were beneficiaries of the gift and how, unlike the Republican Convention that also brought them customers, we didn't have to be in lockdown.  People were welcomed in, not excluded.  The police presence was real but in a way that made them part of, not separate from, the celebration of good will.  I was thinking of how technology had changed us even here with cameras, including my own, clicking away with abandon but largely bypassing the famous "Kodak (film) moment".  No bonanza for the fast photo counters in this event, just a lot of download and digital memory.

Most of all, with the backdrop of a depressing world and a domestic political abyss, I was feeling good, feeling saffron and as Martha who is to depart from her jail cell in the coming days would say, "that's a good thing."  Bravo and thank you Jean-Claude and Christo!

Wednesday, February 9, 2005


Christo1_6    A couple of weeks ago, I entered Central Park to take a run and noticed a series of low black stone wedges with orange handle-like markers on the path before me.  What's going here, I asked myself.  As I proceeded around the six mile winding road from 69th street up over the top of park at 110th down the other side to 59th and back around to my entry point, it was clear that there was more to all of this than just a few blocks of black stone at 69th. They were everywhere.   What I saw emerging, and what will come to full fruition this weekend, is the fulfillment of the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude's long planned "Gates" public art experience.  As the days have passed and the shape of this wonder emerges on all of the park's 23 miles of paths, it's clear that New York which has seen it all is about to see something really new.  Rachel Bernstein, my talented artist daughter-in-law who was in town for a few days and is kicking herself that she'll miss Gates in full bloom, joined me in checking out the building progress yesterday before flying home to Chapel Hill.  If anyone doesn't understand what art is, she said, they should come here and experience it.  Indeed they should.

On today's visit, where I took a lot of photos, I thought about why this evolving temporary art was so engaging, so exciting.  It was a grey day, quite a contrast from the soaring Christo3_1bright orange structures that were beginning to dominate the space.  What a metaphor I thought.  I wouldn't say that it spoke the cliché "light at the end of the tunnel", but it certainly evoked a counterpoint to the darkness of our time.  I was also thinking that one of the things missing among the current crowd in Washington (both parties) and other places of

leadership in this country and around the world is humor.  I thought of Franklin Roosevelt's broad smiling face with that cigarette holder sticking straight into the air – the anti-fear man of high spirits (he also liked his afternoon cocktail) in the depths of national depression.  I thought of Jack Kennedy's dry humor, the unending quips that punctuated every press conference drawing you in and giving you a sense that politics was indeed a noble and uplifting thing.  We're all so dour today, we take ourselves so seriously, carry the burden so visibly on our shoulders. 

What's going on in Central Park is striking, but it also makes you smile.  It's the kind of thing that Christo4_4 doesn't take itself so seriously.  It's art at its creative core, not its permanent preciousness.  It reminds us that we are alive and bright (orange), that dark as it may be, life is full of light or at least can be.  The Christo project was dismissed by many as too daunting, too much for this City that's experienced it all.  No one would take on this monumental task; translate this dream into a reality.  But here it is, the impossible as the possible.  It won't be around for more than a fortnight which in itself is some kind of metaphor for the fragility of brightness in our time.  It won't be around to see in the park, but I won't let it slip from my memory.  So there, dark and dismal world!