NEW YORK -- You could see it in the faces of the people in Central Park: the absence of any expression, save, perhaps, mild befuddlement, or vague disappointment. "The Gates," Christo's big ballyhooed Central Park project, had promised so much, but on Saturday, when it was finally, completely installed, it just stood there, 23 miles of what looked like pleated orange bed sheets, flapping listlessly on orange vinyl frames. From a distance they looked like traffic signs. Mayor Bloomberg said this would be "innovative, provocative art," and that everyone would be talking about it; but, in fact, hardly anyone knew what to say.
Think of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes." A couple of sharpies tell the emperor his new robes are so special that only the most discerning can see them. "The Gates" is a little like that. A $21-million project, 26 years in the making, the art world and its cheerleaders pronounced it a success in advance. When Christo and Jeanne-Claude, his wife, held a news conference at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Friday -- the museum has been peddling "Gates" souvenirs -- they attracted journalists from around the world. According to the Times, the journalists represented some 200 media outlets, including Bulgarian national television.
"It has no purpose," Jeanne-Claude said, referring to "The Gates." "It is not a symbol. It is not a message. It is only a work of art."
Christo, however, said that when the fabric panels -- the orange bed sheets, that is -- waved in the wind they were meant to remind us of tree branches and Central Park's twisting paths. But when the journalists pressed him further, he grew testy.
"This project is not involved with talk," he said. "It is real physical space. You need to spend time walking in the cold airâ€¦It is not necessary to talk."
And indeed when people showed up Saturday to walk in the cold air and gaze at what Christo had wrought, they did not find it necessary to talk. What could they possibly say? Christo once said "The Gates" would be his "homage" to Central Park, but the charmless eyesore had nothing to do with Central Park; it was Christo's homage to himself.
Still, the die had been cast, and the fix was in. The cheerleaders had spoken, and there was no turning back. The Times coverage of the Saturday opening, in yesterday's paper, was, shall we say, overheated.
This is some of what the paper's chief art critic declared in his review, which ran at the top of page one: "'The Gates' is a work of pure joy, a vast populist spectacle of good will and simple eloquence, the first great public art event of the 21st century," and so on. The rest of the review and an accompanying news story filled up an entire inside page.
The sad thing is, you wanted to like "The Gates." Mayor Bloomberg said it would attract many out-of-town visitors before it was dismantled on Feb. 27; the city's Economic Development Council estimated that they would spend $80 million. Moreover some 650 "paid volunteers" -- one of them Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas -- had worked for days on the installation. And the statistics were impressive: 5,920 tons of steel, 60 miles of vinyl tubing and 116,389 miles of fabric were reported to have gone into the construction process.
But none of that mattered. "The Gates" is a flop. The Times's critic also said the "skirted gates...appeared to shimmy like dancers in a conga line, the cloth buckling and swaying" -- he really did say that -- and that the "paths have become like processionals," where "everyone is suddenly a dignitary on parade." He really did say that, too.
Perhaps "The Gates" might have been saved, or at least redeemed a little, if there had been a touch of whimsy somewhere, but there is none. The 16-feet high vinyl frames that straddle the park paths range in width from 6 to 18 feet, and the narrower ones create a traffic problem. Forget about processionals and dignitaries on parade. Pedestrians bunch up, and there is a claustrophobic feel. The cloth fabrics overhead don't help.
In the drawings that depict "The Gates" -- the Metropolitan Museum has them on sale -- the fabrics, almost diaphanous, billow gently. But in Central Park the real things hardly billow at all. Mostly they flap and wave, like laundry on a clothesline. It's good that Christo raised the $21 million himself.