Feb. 18, 2005
New York's orange revolution


Rarely does a work of public art have the ability to transform a city, much less conversation within it. And in a city that has built its reputation on a "been there, done that" mentality, it takes a lot for New York to turn its collective head.

But when Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude this week realized their 25-year-old vision of draping New York's Central Park in saffron, something remarkable happened: New Yorkers were impressed.

When Christo's $20 million exhibition, "The Gates," opened last Saturday, New Yorkers not only turned their heads, they also turned on their heels, heading en masse for a park that in an instant was transformed from its wintertime gray into a billowing, sinewy celebration of orange.

And, for a moment, New Yorkers seemed united in wonderment and delight.

In the days before the opening, approximately 7,500 orange gates, each one shaped like a Hebrew chet, were erected along the park's paths. Then, when word was given on Saturday morning, the translucent pieces of fabric that had been wrapped around the top of each gate were unfurled, and the park's veins turned orange.

When people poured into the park on Sunday, one had the sense that everyone was talking about the same thing, even if they spoke 100 different languages.

The day was gloriously sunny but brisk, and an ochre sun shown against the backdrop of a deep blue sky, illuminating the orange pieces of fabric hanging throughout the park like God lights His autumn leaves.

People came from all around to see it, some boarding planes, some fighting the traffic from Long Island into Manhattan, others merely stepping out of their apartment buildings and crossing the street.

It wasn't just the brilliant orange of the exhibition's installations; the variegated people marching through the gates themselves became part of the picture. Puffy winter coats, colorful strollers, dogs, bicycles and winter hats added black and pink and blue and brown and green to Christo's orange. There were beautiful people and funny-looking people and thin people and fat people and children with runny noses and old people being pushed in wheelchairs.

As the lighthearted processional made its way through the park, nobody really walked. They ambled. They strolled. They moseyed. They lingered. They sat. They stopped and had lunch on the park benches.

This was not the type of art for which one went to a gallery and observed from a reasonable distance. Indeed, though one could take it all in from the bird's-eye view of a helicopter cockpit or a Fifth Avenue penthouse, it appeared greatly diminished from such a distance, not enhanced.

This was art for the people, extending from ritzy midtown all the way to Harlem, meant to be touched, felt, reveled in. Adults leaped to reach the fabric, children threw balls over the gates, even elderly women with canes stretched out to try to feel a piece of the billowing curtains.

The few skeptics that had voiced reservations about the project seemed to disappear with the unfurling of The Gates, and city officials talked delightedly about the benefits the project was bringing to the city.

Approximately $80 million in additional business was expected to be generated by the $20 million installation, which was paid for solely by the artists. On Sunday, the nightmarish traffic on the avenues surrounding Central Park translated into a dreamy cash windfall for the restaurants, parking garages and retail stores near the park. One hot dog vendor reported taking in $1,000 in less than a day-more than 10 times his average take for a Sunday in February.

Even the weather seemed pleased by The Gates. By midweek, unusually warm, springlike temperatures sent herds of stockbrokers, lawyers and businessmen out into the city's streets and parks at lunchtime.

In about a week, The Gates will be dismantled and the park will return to its natural state of artifice, a brown and green sanctuary in the middle of the chrome-and-concrete city. Winter doubtless will return, and the banalities of daily life will again occupy their central place in the hearts and minds of New Yorkers.

Public art, however good, can change only so much. But it certainly doesn't hurt.