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Christo’s Dirty Laundry

from the magazine

Christo’s Dirty Laundry

Summer 1997
Infrastructure and energy
Arts and Culture

Every few years the Bulgarian-born artist Christo pops into the news with another of his "environmental art" projects. You may recall the acres of day-glo pink fabric that he used to frame several islands in Miami's Biscayne Bay back in 1983 or perhaps the thousands of yellow and blue umbrellas that he scattered across the countryside of California and Japan, respectively, in 1991 in a gesture of trans-Pacific unity. Christo and his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, who live in Soho, have now set their sights on their city of residence. They propose The Gates: Project for Central Park, New York.


What do they have in mind for beautifying Olmsted and Vaux's masterpiece? Fifteen thousand steel gates, straddling the park's 20 miles of walkways, each one consisting of two thin, 15-foot-high poles with another pole across the top. A large saffron-colored nylon panel would hang from each crossbar. The "installation" would stand for two weeks. To visualize it, imagine all the Buddhist monks in Tibet descending on the park and hanging out their robes to dry.


Christo and Jeanne-Claude's post-modern clotheslines deserve a resounding no from the city—just like the one they got more than 15 years ago, when they first proposed the project. At the time, Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis rightly concluded that the city shouldn't make a practice of turning over its green space to every art-world crank who wants a grand canvas. One might add that the massive gates would block sight-lines and impede biking and Rollerblading in the park.


Last time "the permit process was too public," Christo told me. "It was overexposed." This time he has concluded that a stealth strategy will work best. He will work behind the scenes, discreetly pressing for the necessary city permits.


Parks Commissioner Henry Stern opposes The Gates, but he knows that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have overcome greater odds before. In 1995 they persuaded the German legislature, after two decades of unsuccessful lobbying and over Chancellor Helmut Kohl's vociferous objections, to let them wrap the Reichstag—yes, the whole building—in a giant silver tarp. "If they could conquer the Reichstag," says Stern, "how can we know the park is safe?"

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