Environmental Art

A UAMA display shows the works of the couple behind NYC's 'The Gates'

The New York Times loved "The Gates." The New Yorker hated it.

"It is a long, billowy saffron ribbon meandering through Central Park--not a neat bow, but something that's very much a gift package to New York City," wrote the Times' chief art critic, Michael Kimmelman, of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's outdoor installation. "'The Gates' is a work of pure joy, a vast populist spectacle of good will and simple eloquence, the first great public art event of the 21st century."

The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl begged to differ.

"The work's charm-free, synthetic orange hue--saffron? no way--is something you would wear only in the woods during deer season, in order to avoid being shot," Schjeldahl grumbled. "The nylon fabric is sullen to the touch. The proportions of the arches are graceless, and dogs alone esteem the clunky bases."

The warring responses are pretty typical for the environmental works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who for years have specialized in wrapping monumental buildings and bridges in cloth, and installing enormous curtains, umbrellas and other artificial objects in the landscape. This time around, the husband-and-wife team set up some 7,500 metal gates, big enough to walk through, at intervals along 23 miles of meandering paths in Olmstead and Vaux's beloved Central Park. Attached to each gate was a fluttering piece of saffron (well, orange) cloth. Cut from nearly 1.1 million yards of fabric, the curtains easily billowed in the breeze.

Anybody who didn't hop a plane to New York sometime in the last two weeks--and I'm unfortunately one of them--will never get the chance to judge "The Gates" in situ, in all its peachy glory. Like all of the Christos' work (they both use his first name as a last name), "The Gates" was ephemeral. Despite the $21 million cost, which the artists raised themselves, the gates were up just 16 days. They came down last Sunday.

Tucson fans can at least see a serigraph drawing of a few Christo gates, in a show at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Timed to coincide with the eruption of orange in New York City, Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Tom Golden Collection displays some 100 drawings, collages and photographs of Christo projects from Japan to Germany. (Christo created most of the pieces, but the photos are principally by Wolfgang Volz.)

Because the installations exist only briefly--a giant curtain in a Colorado mountain gap blew down after just 28 hours in 1972--they live on only in pictures. The Christos rely on sales of these images not only for their income, but as a means to pay for new works. The detailed preliminary drawings also help drum up support for their projects, which they don't always get. In New York, it took 24 years for city officials to warm up to the saffron portals.

For "The Gates" serigraph, Christo imagined his future installation by superimposing a colored drawing on top of a real-life black-and-white photo. A cascade of billowing orange parades across a hillock at the south end of Central Park; beyond it, hotels rise up in black and white. Like most of the paper works on view, it's a beautiful object in and of itself, deftly drawn and composed. (The Bulgarian-born Christo trained in fine arts academies in Prague and Vienna.) Some of the pieces are alluringly three-dimensional, as befits an artist who works in real space. A picture imagining the wrapping of trees on Paris's Champs-...lysées has real bunches of 3-D plastic threaded onto a hand-colored litho.

The work is divided between documentation of projects that actually came to fruition, and plans for others that may never see the light of day. Among the most famous in the first category is "Surrounded Islands," in which Christo encircled 11 islands in Miami's Biscayne Bay with wide swathes of pink cloth. The flamingo color playfully alludes to retro deco Miami, at the same time that it conjures up the delicate hues of tropical seas at sunrise and sunset. It's serious and not-serious at the same time.

Christo planted giant yellow umbrellas along 24 miles of California hillside in "The Umbrellas," and companion umbrellas in blue in Japan. He strung a "Running Fence" in billowing white, a ribbon of fabric that ran along the rolling hills in the California wine country of Sonoma and Marin counties. And he even wrapped up a piece of rugged Australian coastline.

These outdoor works are mostly lovely and whimsical; they make only the barest of allusions to thorny issues like the human propensity to impose the artificial on the natural. Naturally, their works raise environmental concerns all by themselves; they can only go forward after environmental impact studies.

The wrapped buildings do seem to have something to say. "Wrapped Reichstag" made for a strangely delightful transformation of the German parliament in Berlin. A simple pleated cloth "dress," tied over the building with blue ropes, seemed to purify the excesses of the rococo architecture. But the 1995 project also helped exorcise the Nazi nightmare and the subsequent Communist regime. It was hope made visible.

Those of us who have never seen these ephemeral works can only guess at how they're affected by the variables of sunlight and moonlight, wind and rain. Even The New Yorker critic who so disliked "The Gates" had to admit he was enchanted by the interaction of light and color on a brilliant winter's day. His pleasure lasted only two seconds, he wrote, but he marveled that "a low sun backlights the fluttering fabric, which combusts like stained glass in a molten state."