NEW YORK – To create their huge works of art – the wrapping of Berlin’s Reichstag building, the surrounding of 11 islands in Florida’s Biscayne Bay with swaths of pink polypropylene – the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude must marshal squadrons of workers, run experiments in wind tunnels, and battle bureaucracy, often for decades.

So it is perhaps no surprise that their project in Central Park that opens Saturday – 7,500 16-foot gates draped in saffron fabric covering 23 miles of paths – tempts the pair to assert control over every detail.

Christo is finishing drawings for The Gates, some of which will be sold to defray the $20-million-plus cost of the project, all of it financed by the couple.

No grants. No Medici-style patronage. No city funds.

The Gates, which will be unfurled at 8 a.m. EST Saturday and be up only through Feb. 27, is expected to draw millions of visitors to New York.

The project has been a long time coming.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who have been doing public projects since 1961, first proposed The Gates in 1979. They also dreamed of wrapping the Museum of Modern Art or a Times Square building in fabric. But the city and building owners weren’t biting. At the time, Central Park was in ruins. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s original proposal for The Gates called for digging holes, raising fears of damage to grass and tree roots.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, however, are paragons of patience. They pestered city officials.

“The Christos have a wonderful racket, but we don’t need them here,” Henry J. Stern, then parks and recreation commissioner, told the New York Times in 1999. “If they want public attention, why not try wrapping Trump Tower.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude persisted with other projects that gained worldwide attention, including Running Fence, a 24.5-mile fence of nylon fabric erected in Northern California in 1976. The 1995 wrapping of the Reichstag brought more than five million people to Berlin and transformed the seat of the German parliament into a shimmering evening gown of a building.

The Gates became a reality after Michael Bloomberg was elected New York’s mayor in 2001.

Bloomberg had collected the couple’s work and promoted the project. Christo and Jeanne-Claude also figured out how to avoid the holes. A deal was struck.

“Impressive and imaginative works of art have enhanced New York City’s public spaces throughout history and have greatly contributed to the city’s status as the cultural capital of the world,” Bloomberg said in a letter introducing The Gates. “It is in this grand tradition of public art in New York City that the internationally acclaimed artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude will present The Gates.”

This week, Central Park is beginning to look like a giant slalom course. On Monday, about 600 paid volunteers began erecting the 16-foot vinyl poles, topped with a horizontal pole that holds the fabric, which is currently rolled up.

The artists’ chief engineer, Vince Davenport, conducted tests to make sure the project would withstand strong winds, Jeanne-Claude said. In 1991, the artists constructed 3,100 28-foot-wide umbrellas in Japan and the United States. A freak storm caused one umbrella to break loose and hit a viewer, who fell and died after hitting her head on a rock.

The couple’s Web site (http://christojeanneclaude.net/) describes The Gates as “a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees and will highlight the shape of the footpaths.”

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Jeanne-Claude (both she and her husband are first-name-only) said she and Christo chose saffron for its “tremendous richness of hues and tonalities.”

“It’s February,” Jeanne-Claude said. “The sun is very low in the sky, and when the sun will be in the back, that portion of the fabric will become golden yellow, but the part of the fabric in the shade will become a different red, so it will be a multitude of hues.”

The couple attract as much attention for their quirky ways as for their work. Stories often mention how he eats only raw garlic for lunch.

They emphasize their oneness. The interview is with both, not one. They were born on the same day in the same hour – he in Bulgaria, she in French Morocco. Both are 69. He chose the color of her Lucille Ball-orange mane. There are only three things they do not both do: They never fly together. She doesn’t draw. He doesn’t talk to the accountant.

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The size and unusual nature of their projects prompt people to ask: “Is it art?”

Such questions arise from a stodgy view of what art is, said Arthur Danto, the art critic for The Nation and a friend of the couple.

“There is sometimes beauty in astonishment,” he said. “We think of the wrapping of the Reichstag. That was so audacious. It made me think of the Reichstag in a way I wouldn’t have thought of it before.”

The temporary nature of their work adds to its beauty, Danto said.

“It’s like an aesthetic party of some kind,” he said, “and parties don’t just go on. For a period of time, you participate in a performance and you’re relating to the park in a way you’ve never related to it before.”

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IF YOU GO

“The Gates” will cover 23 of the 58 miles of pedestrian paths in Central Park, from 59th to 110th Street. Entrance is free. The fabric panels of “The Gates” will be unfurled Saturday and will be up through Feb. 27.

You can also see “The Gates” from the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue at 82d Street; 212-535-7710. The museum’s roof garden, overlooking Central Park, is usually closed at this time of year, but the Met will open it through Feb. 27. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. It is closed Mondays except holidays.

Guided trolley tours and walking tours of Central Park will be offered through Feb. 27. Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., trolleys will loop the park from 59th to 110th Street. People can get off and reboard at any stop. Tickets can be purchased at the southeast entrance of the park (59th Street and Fifth Avenue); $20 (adults), $10 (children 12 and under). For more tour information, go to: http://www.centralparknyc.org/17613/2708540.



(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer’s World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Christo+artist

AP-NY-02-10-05 0629EST



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