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Christo Does Central Park

After a quarter century's effort, the wrap artist and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, blaze a saffron trail in New York City

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Christo agreed, and planning for the project went forward. In June 2002, Central Park administrator Douglas Blonsky walked the park with the Christos, pointing out trees whose branches were too low for the proposed 16-foot-high gates and places where birds and wildlife would be disturbed. For the rest of that month, the artists—and their team of photographers, filmmakers, friends from other projects and the Davenports—traversed the park, measuring walkways and marking maps with placements for the gates. “We walked 100 miles and I went through three pairs of shoes,” says Jeanne-Claude. “There are 25 different widths of walkways, so there are 25 different widths of gates.”

By the time the Christos were ready for Vince Davenport and his staff to create the final working maps for the project, they had reduced the number of gates from 15,000 to 7,500. And addressing a lingering concern that the autumn months, when the park was crowded, would be the wrong season for the project, they shifted the proposed dates for the installation to February. They also felt the saffron color would show off to best advantage then, against the trees’ bare silver gray branches.

In January 2003, after a final round of negotiations, the City of New York and the Christos signed a 43-page contract for The Gates that included a $3 million fee to the city for the use of the park. Then what Christo calls the “hardware” stage of the project began. Vince Davenport decided that vinyl tubing (cheaper and sturdier than aluminum) would be best for the five-inch-square poles that would form the framework of the “gates.” The poles would be set in, and anchored by, the steel bases. He then tested the frames and fabric by leaving them outside in all kinds of weather for eight months. As with each of their projects, the Christos also commissioned wind-tunnel tests.

Christo went to work producing drawings and collages of the project. At prices ranging from $30,000 up to $600,000 for the largest works, this art would underwrite the project, along with the sale of some of his earlier works. Meanwhile, Davenport placed an order for 15,000 steel bases, 315,491 linear feet of saffron-colored vinyl tubing, and 165,000 matching bolts and self-locking nuts. Wolfgang Volz, the Christos’ photographer for more than three decades, ordered 1,092,200 square feet of saffron-colored ripstop nylon to be woven and sewn in his native Germany. And the Christos rented two industrial buildings in Queens, at $30,000 a month, to assemble and store The Gates’ components.

By this time, some attitudes had shifted. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Gordon Davis, the parks commissioner who rejected the proposal in 1981, said he anticipated that the project’s “colorful, whimsical embrace of the restored landscape will make us stare, laugh, gasp, prance, gawk and say to no one in particular, ‘Isn’t the park wonderful?’” Of course it wouldn’t be New York City without some carping. Henry Stern, who as parks commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani opposed the Christo project, fulminated in a newsletter last April that “no man’s ego should be rewarded with 7,500 polyps on the city’s finest natural landscape.”

Out at the Queens facility last summer and fall, project director Jonita Davenport assembled a database of workers—from forklift operators to art students—who would be paid to work on The Gates. They’ll be fed one hot meal a day during the installation, “on porcelain, not plastic,” says Christo. “Real service, real everything; no fast-food mentality.”

On January 3, movers and forklift operators were scheduled to start placing the bases at 12-foot intervals on green dots spray-painted onto the park’s asphalt. The some 600 workers who will actually erect the gates will begin their training February 4. Most will be working with the Christos for the first time. Others, like Janet Rostovsky, a 62-year-old docent with the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, California, are veterans of other Christo projects. “You’re like children together,” says Rostovsky. “There’s this unbelievable excitement and enthusiasm and awe at being part of it.”

In early February, 60 flatbed trucks will begin carrying their saffron cargo through the streets of Manhattan. “The logistic is a nightmare, I don’t even want to think about it,” Christo says. “There will be trucks and cars and forklifts and people and dogs. We will try to be very agreeable to everybody using the park. We don’t try to be annoying. But there could be big screaming. I cannot sleep. There are 7,500 gates and there are 7,500 chances to make mistakes.”

On Monday, February 7, Rostovsky and the other workers will begin bolting gates to their bases and raising them into position. The saffron fabric panels will stay rolled up in orange cocoons until all the gates are in place. At first light on Saturday morning, February 12—weather permitting—workers throughout the park will open the cocoons. By noon, says Vince Davenport, “the park will blossom.”

The 81/2-foot-long fabric panels will hang from the thousands of 16-foot-high frames straddling the park’s walkways. To a visitor looking down from the sculpture terrace atop the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a saffron stream will appear to flow between the bare trees. “This is really an intimate project, truly built on a human scale,” says Christo. “It is not big, not bombastic. It is something very private, and I love that.”

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