As a work of public art, The Gates was startlingly controversial, and I think that the controversy is perhaps the best way to approach the art itself. There seemed to be four classes of complaint against The Gates. The first is that it was a waste of the city’s money, the second was that it wasn’t something else, the third was that it wasn’t anything, and the fourth was that it was ugly.
The first complaint, of course, is false: the Christos financed the project themselves, and not a penny of city money was spent. The second complaint, however, gets at what made this installation different from so much public art in New York city. I heard various versions of this complaint — that the Christos should have let people graffiti the gates, that the $23 million they spent was a waste of money, that it’d be great if they allowed other artists to put their work (read: more likeable work) in the park, that the only good thing about The Gates was the way they got people talking about public art. The Gates seemed to generate a kind of furious looking away, coupled with a kind of inspirational force that pushed people to imagine their own works of art.
As I kept hearing this variety of complaint, I began to think about other public art in New York City, which generally does not drive people to demand something else. From the high art of Jeff Koons’s Puppy at Rockefeller Center, to the charming rotundities of Tom Otterness along Broadway, to the lowbrow Cow Parade, the dominant mode is cutesy. In the subways, too, we find images of fuzzy ducklings reenacting the first subway ride. I have no particular problem with cutesy public art, but its ubiquity suggests that New Yorkers — or at least the New Yorkers who decide on public art — have grown nervous about anything ambiguous or provocative, anything that startles without providing a ready resolution. In other words, about art.
The Gates was resolutely not cute. Christo and Jeanne-Claude and their artistic pretentions may be cute, but neither the actual structures themselves nor their collective presence were the least bit likely to induce the warm fuzzy feeling we get from looking at a flowery puppy, a colorful cow or a sad rotund bear. In keeping with Christo’s long history of wrapping and obscuring, The Gates presented instead a kind of blankness, which is why people felt so compelled to imagine other things onto them. Without actually wrapping anything, The Gates achieved the effect of wrapping. And this is the source of the third complaint: that they weren’t anything, that anyone could have done it, that there was nothing artistic about it.
Christo’s work is, it must be admitted, not the sort of thing that takes a craftsman’s hand. At this point, however, post-minimalism and post-earth works and post-Jeff Koons — indeed, post-R. Mutt — I think we can accept that an artist needn’t be a craftsman. And, considering the sheer scale of the work, not to mention its power to draw hundreds of thousands of people to Central Park in February, it is resolutely something, not nothing.
Nor is it quite the blank slate some people insisted they were seeing. The color was billed as saffron, but it was, rather, the color of traffic cones and other obstructions. One could be either horrified to find this color of inconvenience strewn about the park or thrilled at how it had been transformed. It is also the color of torii, the orange gates that sometimes line the paths to Shinto shrines in Japan. Like torii, The Gates felt like a sanctification of the environment in which they were placed, and the hushed spectators tended to respond as if they were witnessing or participating in some mildly sacred ritual. What gave added strength to this feeling was the sheer beauty of the work itself.
So some people thought they were ugly. I went to see The Gates in the new-fallen snow on Presidents Day, and they were not ugly. The stands were a bit inelegant, but the sight of the fabric billowing out in the breezes, of the light filtering through them, of the trails framed in them and the wild tangles of bare branches highlighted by the angularity of the arches, was beautiful. The Gates were what they were, and if you were willing to be there and experience them as that, without demanding that they be something else, they were startlingly lovely. They achieved what minimalism can at its best, transforming and intensifying an environment to create a new experience. This effect of minimalism tends to fall flat in museums, where the space is carefully decontextualized to begin with, so that there is nothing for the art to transform. In Central Park, it had a transcendent quality that I was glad to experience. And if there was no deeper meaning beyond a bit of narcissistic Central Park worship, so what?