Alex and I took the 6 train uptown on Saturday morning, and we met my friend Claire and some of her friends a little to the south of the Met Museum. Along with thousands of other New Yorkers and visitors, we spent the next few hours walking around Central Park, taking in The Gates. It was a nice enough day—not warm, exactly, but warmer than the week that had preceded it, with the occasional parting of the clouds to warm us for a minute or two. And I was glad to get the chance to see an artwork by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. I wanted to get a sense for myself of whether there was anything behind the hype.
Among the art world, Christo and Jeanne-Claude get plenty of flak for being sensational and theoretically slight. (Tom Moody’s sentiments are probably a good example, though he might be annoyed at me drafting his posts to represent “the art world”. Sorry, Tom.) Personally I don’t mind that a work like The Gates—technically, its full name is The Gates: Central Park, New York, 1979-2005—doesn’t have challenging theory behind it. What matters more in a case like this is execution: Impeccable delivery saves many a simple idea. Unfortunately, I’d say The Gates falls far short of this standard.
If it were more artfully designed, The Gates could have integrated well with Central Park, but the artists have treated the park more as an abstraction than as an actual place. The first sign of this tendency might be the fact that The Gates looks much better in still images than in situ. Looking in, say, Flickr, it’s easy to find an arresting image lifted from this subject: A single orange flag, fluttering in the wind against a backdrop of bare tree branches. But such a photograph doesn’t capture the feeling of walking past that flag, and another, and a hundred more, until the eye becomes fatigued by all that unceasing orange plastic.
Set against the gray tones of Central Park in February, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s rectangular orange gates catch the eye and don’t quite let go. And they’re everywhere: There are 7500 of them, covering pretty much every path in the entire Park. They start at the borders of the park and continue all the way through at roughly the same density. After you spend some time walking among the result, this distribution feels more methodical than artful. (This is a fairly common problem with installations, whether they’re the size of a broom-closet, or an 843-acre park.)
To play backseat-installationist for a minute, I wonder if The Gates could have benefited from more variation in placement, size, shape, or even (gasp) color. I wonder how The Gates would look if the gates were sparser in certain areas of the park, or even if they were barely visible on the outlying streets and increased in density as you walked inwards.
Normally a walk through Central Park presents a wide view of hills, rocks, water, and trees, with the paths lying inconspicuously at the bottom of your view. But right now, every concrete path within a few hundred feet loudly announces its presence to you with tall orange gates. Today the park looks like an engineered network of walking paths, where it normally looks like an unstructured expanse of nature.
Well, relatively unstructured, anyway. I suppose it’s a bit quixotic to make an appeal to natural order when discussing a park that’s accessible by subway. But I have to admit that I’m a fan of the park. It’s well-groomed, sure, and overrun by people on warm days, but the structure imposed upon it by the city is more like the natural structure present in leaves on a tree than the artificial structure in the right angles of a city grid or a Gannt chart. (See also: Christopher Alexander.) The park’s meagre acres are vast without feeling overwhelming, as full of quiet corners as open vistas. It’s jam-packed with historical and architectural wonders such as the Bethesda Terrace or Cleopatra’s Needle, but without the insistent feel of a warehouse store of a Greatest Hits record. The Gates could have taken a cue from the park’s design and given its own offerings some space to breath. Instead, the artwork seems too aware of its short lifespan, and a little anxious to be remembered.
But even with these reservations, I can’t entirely condemn the enterprise. Public art gets much worse this: Take as an example that godawful Cow Parade trend a few years back that blighted cities around the world like some sort of aesthetic SARS. And the attention spent on this work probably has positive dividends. Hundreds of thousands of people will seen The Gates; more than a few of them will be inspired enough to take a deeper interest in art. You could call this the “Oprah Book Club defense”: the work itself might not be that good, but more time talking about art is better than less. And more art is better than less art. Even when the art in question is something frustrating like The Gates.