|By Jennifer Steinhauer|
February 9, 2005
Barbarians (Well, Mostly Art Lovers) at 'The Gates': Fans of Christo Descend
In 1991 David Yust clocked 22 hours staring at a forest of yellow umbrellas in a valley north of Los Angeles. He spent 13 days in Berlin in 1995 marveling at the aluminum-surfaced fabric that draped the Reichstag, once rising at 2 a.m. for a reverential photo session of the sun rising over the enfolded neo-Renaissance landmark. And next week he plans to photograph a saffron-cloaked Central Park at dawn.
Mr. Yust, 65, is part of a far-flung group of followers of the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, whose latest public art project, "The Gates," is scheduled to open along 23 miles of the park's pedestrian walkways on Saturday. These loyal fans plot distant vacations, organize group trips and sometimes abandon jobs to bear witness to the artists' installations.
They are like the fans that long traipsed after the Grateful Dead, but with far fewer tour dates. They share the passion of people who collect milk glass, Manolo Blahniks or rare teapots, although their holdings are limited to books, pieces of fabric or, in the case of Caryl Unger, a shovel that was used to install "Surrounded Islands" in Biscayne Bay, off Miami.
Groupies? Gate-heads? They resist monikers. But their ardor for the Christo and Jeanne-Claude happenings is passionate.
Mr. Yust, an art professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, said he was first bitten by the Christo bug in 1983, when he signed on to work on "Surrounded Islands," in which 11 Florida islands were encircled by pink floating fabric, after hearing the artists speak at the university. Since then he has tried to see as many of the installations as he can.
"I thought about that project every day for the next two years," said Mr. Yust, who, like many of those who travel the country or world to see the team's work, is an artist himself. "I thought he was a big nut at that time. And I still think he is a big nut. But I am totally supportive of what he and Jeanne-Claude do. I feel they are among the last of the true idealists on the planet."
From art collectors to museum groups, tourists to paid Christo volunteers, the city expects 200,000 to flock to the city for the installation, which will remain through Feb. 27. Such figures, of course, are mere guesses for now. But there does seem to be universal agreement that in a traditionally slow tourism period, New York will draw record numbers of visitors, thanks to "The Gates."
Hotels that are usually half full or worse this time of year are reporting strong bookings, especially at establishments that line the park's perimeter. For the coming weekend, the Carlyle Hotel is 75 percent booked, a 30 percent increase over last year, said James McBride, the hotel's managing director. The hotel is offering a "Gates" package, which includes a park-view suite with catering for two hours for 25 people, at $6,000. "We booked one of them already," Mr. McBride said.
The Mark is sold out this weekend; last February, only half of the 176 rooms were booked, managers there said.
The artists estimate that thousands of people around the globe make a point of traveling to see their work, often signing on to help install the pieces. Smaller Christo communities hammer beams, tread water, twist fabric, answer phones or perform myriad other tasks to help bring a work together. There is even a blog on which visitors can record their reactions: nycgates.blogspot.com.
Those fans, as well as thousands of other visitors who are landing in New York over the next several days to behold the ornamented park, are expected to lift the city's tourism economy, usually lackluster this time of year.
"You don't go running up to New York in the middle of February from Miami," said Mrs. Unger, who is flying in on Thursday from Miami to see the installation. "But when I heard it was going to be in New York, I said to my husband, 'Please, let's go.' "
New York merchants, of course, hope the experience will be as remunerative as it is enriching. The Mandarin Oriental will offer a package including binoculars in each of its Central Park View rooms, as well as breakfast at Asiate and a Metropolitan Museum of Art book on the project, starting at $1,050 a night. La Prima Donna Restaurant will serve sautéed Prince Edward Island mussels, in a saffron cream sauce. You get the idea.
For the record, the artists do not earn income from the detritus left behind once a project is over. "The Gates" will be industrially recycled, and proceeds from the sale of "Gates" sweatshirts and other souvenirs will be donated to Nurture New York's Nature and the Central Park Conservancy. The project, which will cost more than $20 million to install, will be paid for by the artists.
Organized groups are coming from Japan, Germany and many American cities to see the work, a great many of them made up of artists or art collectors.
Ruth Halperin, chairwoman of Contemporary Collectors Circle of the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, will fly in with 25 museum members on her fourth Christo trip.
"We went to Fresno to see the umbrellas," said Ms. Halperin, who is 77. "We went to Paris, and we saw "Running Fence," she said, referring to the draping of the Pont-Neuf in Champagne-colored cloth in 1985 and a 24-mile nylon curtain that stretched through Sonoma and Marin Counties in California in 1976. " 'Running Fence' - to me that was the most beautiful one," she said. "The hills were beautiful and soft, and the light as the wind blew was magic. I will never forget that for the rest of my life."
About 100 hard-core fans live out their commitment by helping to assemble the projects. Iris Sandkuhler, an artist from San Francisco, has worked on seven Christo installations to date. "I did my first one as a teenager, and now I am in my 40's," Ms. Sandkuhler said. "In 1978, an art instructor in North Carolina piled us into a van and said you have to do this," she said, describing her initiation, a modest Christo project involving the wrapping of some streets in Kansas City.
The commitment is not without its physical challenges. "Working in water in the Biscayne Bay," she said, "we had to lace the panels together, and there was nothing to stand on, so we were in the water floundering around."
"But the hardest one for me," Ms. Sandkuhler mused, "was when I worked for them in Paris, and I was sleeping on a couch in the office right next to the bathroom."
For more information about this project, visit http://christojeanneclaude.net/tg.html
The New York Times
February 9, 2005