Kenneth Krushel | Essays

The Gates

Much has been written about Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "Gates" project in Central Park in New York City, including an outstanding Guest Observer essay by Julie Lasky here at Design Observer. In the past few days, though, we have received two further reports on this project which we want to share with our readers: an essay by Ken Krushel and a photographic portfolio by Adam Bartos. —The Editors

The photographs of Adam Bartos add a formalist vision to the anecdotal experience of being in Central Park during "The Gates."
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"The Christo Gates would be better served behind plate glass, allowing sunlight to do the work of making something metaphysical..."
— Kenneth Krushel
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The Gates: An Essay by Kenneth Krushel

Practically every day begins with the walking of my dog through Central Park. For the most part, this diurnal ritual occurs around 6:30 a.m. Because the park is largely uninhabited at this hour, I have developed a most private relationship with the interior roads and fields, walking the same paths every day, an intimacy in the most public of this city's spaces. Depending upon the extent of my wakefulness, I might notice ice engulfing branches and shimmering in matinal light, or industrious birds scavenging for seed and insect; sometimes I notice the absence of horns and exhaust and miscellaneous occupation.

I have come to know most every movement of our route, it's sinuous course, the perspective offered by the path's plain and elevation. The dog can be unleashed here, knowing the way in a confident and proud manner. The trees are also familiar, these most impressive oaks, maples, elms and ash, for they somehow survive the hardship of an urban landscape. Particularly in the morning, because there is a silence and calm, there is something unpolished and unordained that even the most obtuse observers can engage.

The tangible preparation on the park's paths for "The Gates" occurred suddenly one winter morning. At first there were pairs of blocks of some leaden plastic material, much like discarded gray brick, placed in various locations in opposition along the paths. The bricks were then adorned with orange plastic triangles, perhaps a foot in height. I learned later these plastic forms were required by insurance company contracts; the triangles served to advertise the location of the foundation bricks, thereby avoiding pedestrian accidents and class-action liability. One human stumble could have brought the entire project to a halt.

Orange scaffolding then appeared, looking much like oversized staples, either stem bolted into a brick. The gates were from the outset puzzling, for the monochromatic theme was identical to generic construction tape and traffic cones often used to steer vehicles and sidewalk traffic away from a construction or Con Ed utility repair site. I assumed the choice of color, and every other aspect of the gates, was a deliberate choice. Having lived in New York City since the mid-1960s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, inspired artists that they are, are — I would assume — intensely aware of the palette of colors used in this city. The ubiquitous drawings and prints (sold in order to subsidize the undertaking), the T-Shirts and posters, all seemed carefully conceived to create a precise end-result. The only aspect that remained unpredictable would be a viewer's response.

The event has been a magnet, attracting not only New Yorkers, but a surprising number of visitors from throughout the country, and as dramatic as it sounds, the world. I was actually on a plane returning from Europe this week, and the pilot at one point seized the intercom and waxed rhapsodically about the gates, urging passengers to experience "something wonderful." He predicted, while we were aloft somewhere over the Atlantic, that as we approached Newark Airport, we might follow a route to the west of the city along the Hudson River, affording an unexpected opportunity to see the gates. Imagine, a several mile in the sky advertisement to a captive audience. As it turned out, we did fly south along the Hudson and the day was brilliantly clear, but the multitude of tall buildings effectively obscured any glimpse of the spectacle in the park.

There is obvious excitement shared by those walking within the gates. During most of the day, meandering lines of people marvel at the project's extensive layout, taking pictures, jogging, reaching for the suspended nylon flags, but chiefly looking upward. I suppose a celebration, whether about or within Central Park, is welcomed. Mayor Bloomberg deserves credit for championing Christo and Jeanne-Claude's vision, unlike several previous administrations that considered the project frivolous and eccentric. Attracting crowds, creating attention and celebration, perhaps even encouraging an occasional expression of joy: these are good things for the city. And the effort to introduce something metaphysical to the park, to realize an aspiration some 25 years in the making, is an impressive story and achievement.

Yet I feel something is wrong, "off" the mark.

I often walk along the most eastern path of the park's perimeter on the Upper East Side. On the corner of 5th Avenue and 94th Street, perhaps the most impressive Federal-style private home in the entire city, is being renovated. (It is the former home of the International Center of Photography.) For the past two years, the ground floor has been separated from the street by a plywood barrier swathed in orange nylon. It is as if the motif color and hue of the gates had been anticipated, the actual flags laid horizontal, and used as a sheath for this construction barrier. The orange nylon is perfectly utilitarian, even if harsh on the eyes. And yet this same material, in color, is precisely the theme of this artistic undertaking.

Looking down at the park from any tall building, the paths seem defined by construction ribbon. There is nothing metaphysical in this view; it has become an expanse sutured for a work site. The "line" of color is obdurate, even a bit sullen. Christo is right in insisting the gates be unfurled in mid-winter; one can clearly see their outlines without the obstruction of branches and leaves. But perhaps such obstruction would have introduced the coveted emotional aspect spoken of by the artists. The utility pole-like quality of the design would be somewhat more veiled and mysterious, more engaged with nature, and not so puzzlingly stark, not so out of place in a setting people use as a refuge from things urban.

Up close, while walking through the actual gates, the design is disappointing. They are unexpectedly small: the imagery on posters and t-shirts suggested more height and austerity. The frames are not especially aesthetic, and the flags, neatly pleated, are lifeless save for when there is wind creating unscripted movement. The gates themselves seem to be interlopers: they do not blend or gesture toward anything other than themselves. Even in the early morning, when alone in the park, there is a sense of something heavy-handed and contrived about the gates, their intent to create an impressive "international" event seemingly obvious.

The gates do "work", however, when seen from afar, and when in the more remote parts of the park. When approaching the North Meadow, there is much undulation in the landscape, and from several vantage points only the flags themselves can be seen. From this vantage point, the flags are no longer orange, but sails of a vessel not fully formed. Up close, the flags are either construction warnings, or the color of Hindu funereal cloth, covering a pyre's corpse. Yet from a more distanced perspective, the flags gain life and energy, and define nothing in particular even as they beckon to be viewed.

In the early morning, and on clear days, the sunrise reflects strongly upon the windows of the apartment buildings that make up the wall of Central Park West. The color is not constant, but varies within a spectrum of gold and orange and yellow, sometimes crimson and rust. I don't think this color could be captured anyway other than by one's vision, for the light and resultant color are not mechanical. The light is dependent upon the confluence of sunrise, wind, cloud and quality of air, and these ingredients do not lend themselves to a formulaic recipe. The color is not subordinate to the buildings. It is present, and available, intense and acute, and arresting in its own way. In fact, other than being temporary, this refracted color is precisely what the gates are not. The light in these building's windows becomes something other than itself, a differentiated and unworldly color, defined by the imagination.

The Christo Gates would be better served behind plate glass, allowing sunlight to do the work of making something metaphysical, instead of what is now, in its laden form, an overly orchestrated project rooted in a contrived repetitiveness and vanity.

Kenneth Krushel is the chief executive officer of Proteus, a leading provider of wireless applications. He is a former journalist.
Adam Bartos is a New York-based photographer whose work is in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and others. He is the author of Kosmos and International Territory: The United Nations 1945-95. His new book Boulevard, with an introduction by Geoff Dyer, will be published by Stiedl/Dangin in fall 2005.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Photography, Social Good

Comments [5]

thanks for the post, adam.

i am on the west coast so i have only been able to enjoy the gates in pictures. i do have to say that while there is a lot of contagious excitement for the gates, they were a bit of an anti climax for me. looking at all he photographs, i feel like they really don't connect to the park in any way. i mean, even the little black bricks each leg of a gate is on feels so temporary and disconnected to the ground. just implanting each leg in the ground would have changed everything for me, it would have created some sort of connection between these alien items and the trees and such.

Michelangelo: The "ground" in question is often concrete(?) paths and sometimes natural stone. Implanting the bases would've caused massive damage to the park(especially under the originall 15,000-gate proposal), and was a significant factor in the plan having been rejected the first time.

Christo is right in insisting the gates be unfurled in mid-winter
Actually, that was hardly insistence; it was a compromise. They were intended to be displayed in fall, to coordinate(I'm not going to argue color sense here) with the leaves at the time.

their intent to create an impressive "international" event seemingly obvious
Well sure, but it's not like much of anything else they've done was on the micro scale.

It is as if the motif color and hue of the gates had been anticipated,
No, it's as if pure coincidence were being exploited for dramatic effect, actually. There is no thematic conflict; there is no theme. Face it, no matter what color was used, someone would've found a reason to complain about it because the color is not actually what they'd be complaining about.

For those who insist on whinging about this being a massive ego-stroke, you may be right, but ask yourselves whether it really matters in the end. The same has been said of composers(not to mention conductors), and architects, among any number of other professions, often even correctly. The difference? The Gates will be gone in about a week. I, on the other hand, have to accept the fact that the Batbrary—in which I don't see a single book until the fifth floor!—and Gehry's(now let's talk ego) Priztker dye-job are going to be around significantly longer.

I'm consistently amused by the tortured inferences people keep making about this. I'm mystified that Mr. Krushel seems disappointed by the lack of metaphysical impact, given that the artists have repeatedly, and with obvious irritation, stated it doesn't mean anything, and not just now, but for their projects historically. It's just a—hopefully pretty—thing, that will—again, hopefully—cause a bit of happiness, Dr. Freud. I'm sure we've all read plenty of artists' statements that make us swear we'll never read another one. Frankly, I'm glad there isn't some overwrought Concept supposedly being expressed. Yes, they've left it open to interpretation, but that is not equivalent to the ability to put words in their mouths.

Over post-visit lunch last week, one of the people I was with mentioned that the most impressive thing about The Gates wasn't so much the project itself but that they managed to get pretty much the entire reputedly bitter and jaded population of New York City talking about it, if not actually going to the park in the middle of winter. Keep in mind that the reason the project's date got adjusted was partly that February is pretty much a dead period for visitation. And he's right. Intended or not, The Gates has ended up being one of the largest instances of positive social engineering ever.

From the slideshow, the Gate seems to overpower the landscape. For the most part when the photos were taken up close, you can see mostly the drapes and a hint of the landscape or sliver of the NY skyline. I imagine that'd be the same effect for visitors walking through the park. Not being a New Yorker, I don't quite know how to feel about it being so overpowering. I think I'd be annoyed if such a project obscured views of Yosemite's beauty or the sunsets over PCH.
Nipith Ongwiseth

Christo and Jeanne-Claude always said The Gates would look great in the snow. Decide for yourself by checking out these photos by Adam Kuban at flickr.

Michael Bierut

For a different and hilarious view of The Gates see http://www.not-rocket-science.com/gates.htm
John Waters

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