MOSCOW — To be popular with art historians, you have to be a dead Italian male. Everyone else is suspect to tenured professors and critics, particularly if the work is going to last for just 16 days and is made of nylon and steel. Such was the case with a revolutionary project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, “The Gates” — 7,500 citrus-hue arches unfurled in New York City’s Central Park.
The crowds were festive but awed — a kind of a sedated Mardi Gras. No toddler climbing the tempting structures, almost no graffiti, no loud voices, no fuss. People couldn’t agree on the exact color of Christo’s work; some called it saffron, some orange, some red, some yellow.
This was a rare occasion of personal intimacy with a work of art, when people, not guided by any scholarly authority, had a chance to form their own judgment. Visitors also used different words to describe the spirit of “The Gates,” like uplifting, meditative, cheerful, philosophical and even religious.
To a Western observer, both in shape and concept, “The Gates” looked like a quote from East Asian art, borrowed from a Buddhist or maybe Confucian temple, laconic, purposeful and private.
As for the color, it was an exact match of Tibetan monks’ robes, and just as the cut of the robe leaves the monk’s shoulder naked, the cloth part of “The Gates” exposed and emphasized the lean and muscular steel frame.
Spread across the 37 km of Central Park’s paths, roads and bridges, “The Gates” supplied the archetypal Western landscape with a dash of an Eastern temple. The European school of landscape design (and it must be noted that usually Central Park looks frightfully English) has favored gazebos and pavilions for a few centuries — but it rarely played with gates, which are impractical and in a way very self-indulgent.
A gazebo has a function — one might have a snack there, or take a rest, or find shelter from rain. A gate that doesn’t have a lock doesn’t have a material purpose, and this is why Christo’s work looked esoteric. It was also fleeting like a sand ornament, built by a gardener in the morning to be scrapped by the wind by the end of the day. “The Gates” in their physicality were transitory like a moth — and that was part of their appeal.
The art kept at the Metropolitan Museum at the eastern edge of the same park is permanent, and this certainty and longevity looks quite a bit alienating after the tour of “The Gates.” You suddenly realize that you share a preset life-span gene with “The Gates,” though you are animated and they supposedly aren’t: Both they and you are definitely mortal — everybody knew that “The Gates” would be permanently dismantled Feb. 28. You arrive, you stay, you leave.
Meanwhile, the established and prized art at the Metropolitan Museum belongs to a different species. “I am permanent,” it sneers, “while you are not. Granted, I could be destroyed by a madman, but chances are that I will be around after you go, and some of me, made of hard stone, will stay on Earth even after all you, humans, get extinct.”
This is maddening, as it is a case of dead matter getting out of control. An anonymous Egyptian sculptor who created a statue of a pharaoh has been dead for three millennia, while his creation still goes on. With “The Gates,” the humans are still firmly in charge.
There are two more upsetting things about the Metropolitan’s collection: range and costs. The pieces located in the museum’s central area on the ground floor — mostly medieval Christian trinkets — must be in a constant state of fury: Nobody notices them as people use the rooms where they are being displayed as a throughway to the Impressionists and Old Masters. This is sort of a working class neighborhood of the Metropolitan, ignored and bypassed, though in a smaller museum the ignored pieces could have been viewed as treasures — a perfect instance of unfair class divisions. “The Gates” are democratic; there were 7,500 of them and none was privileged.
As for the money, “The Gates” have cost New York nothing, because Christo footed the bill as he always does with his installations worldwide. However, recently the Metropolitan has proudly displayed a new acquisition — a remarkably meaningless painting of a Madonna and Child by an obscure Italian master, Duccio. Now there is nothing wrong with the Duccio’s painting except the price. A decent replica of a Byzantine icon, more or less like thousands of others kept nowadays in old churches of Eastern Europe from Montenegro to Moscow, it is nothing more than a footnote in the history of art; yet it has fetched the mind-boggling $45 million, though its only virtue is that it is very old — 700 years.
A square millimeter of the undistinguished piece has cost the Metropolitan about a thousand dollars — enough to keep a young artist in Christo’s native Bulgaria going for a year. The money spent on the painting could have provided 45,000 grants like that.
Now, with “The Gates” gone, a visitor might ask, “Very well, so this have been the Gates to what?”
A map of Christo’s installation doesn’t provide many clues; spread across Central Park, “The Gates” just followed its paths like springtime torrents.
One possible explanation lies in their numbers: We normally think of a gate as something definitive, an entry or an exit to something; perhaps by installing 7,500 of them, Christo was saying that neither life nor art has a specific destination.
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