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Saturday, Feb. 19, 2005 - 6:49 p.m.

Caught up in The Gates


Near 96th St. and Fifth Ave., February 12, 2005

New York is going mad over The Gates.

I'm one of them.

I didn't think I'd bother with checking them out when they were unfurled last Saturday. I thought it might be a zoo, a mob scene. Of course, Central Park is more than big enough to handle such crowds, so it didn't seem any more busy than a summer Saturday. So, since Casey was in the city with her mother and I decided to meet them later, I happened to walk along Central Park's eastern border from 86th St. to 104th. That's when I took the 23 photos so far posted in the Yahoo album.

Then, on Wednesday, I went back. I took a 10:40 bus into the city and got out of the subway at Columbus Circle around 11:30. It took me 90 minutes to wander along the section of Central Park from Columbus Circle to the Museum of Natural History at 81st St. I shot two and a half rolls of film (which are at the processing place and will be available for pickup on Monday, then hopefully posted by Tuesday night). I plan to go back at least once more, perhaps tomorrow, because it's supposed to be sunny, if cold, and definitely mid-week or next weekend, if the weather cooperates.

In explaining his vision, his obsession, for this project, Christo has said that the month of February was part of the plan, it was key. The bright color the saffron contrasts perfectly with the cold, drab backdrop of the park in mid-winter. The Gates burst out against the background of muted greens, grays and browns of muddy fields and bare trees. They bring a hint of warmth to the frigid temperatures of New York in February of 30 degrees and lower wind chills. To see The Gates' golden, orange, saffron hue against a bright blue sky, with no sign of New Yorkers bundled up against the cold inspires thoughts of the approaching spring.

There are two things that strike me about this work of public art. The first is the lack of anticipation, the absence of "buzz" leading up to it. There was a bit of it, to be sure, but not to the extent you might expect for such an exhibition in New York City. Now that it's here, though, it's hard to miss. "What's amazing about this," I overheard one woman say on Wednesday, is that I didn't know about it until a week before it opened." The Queen Mary 2 had more of a lead-up, and that's just a ship that the majority of citizens in the middle class and lower can only dream of boarding, unless it's as an employee. But this is free, something everyone can enjoy, and they do.

And that's the other thing that made me take note last week. It's February, the temperature is in the 40s we got lucky with two 50-degree days, but that didn't stick around long or below freezing, and the crowds are coming to Central Park like it's the first sunny day of late March, after a long, cold, winter spent confined indoors. It was more than just lunch hour that brought people out on Wednesday. I saw at least four groups of schoolchildren, their chaparones ordering them to find their partners and walk two-by-two. Every third person had a camera. The NYPD patrolled the park on foot, the officers getting out of their cars as much as they could, no doubt pleased to have the best assignment for these two weeks in February.

When Christo and Jeanne-Claude first conceived The Gates in 1979 they were seen as part of the clean-up of Central Park. From what I've heard, the park wasn't a place you took children late in the day, wasn't the kind of place you spent too much time in, at least not without keeping an eye out over your shoulder. Yet, it took 26 years to get permission from the city, to adjust the design over and over to accomodate the trees and the pathways, to make The Gates an art installation that, for 16 days, transforms the park and then, when removed, leaves no indication of ever having been there. All that will be left will be the photos.

And then, when the archways and billowing curtains of saffron have gone and been recycled, there will be untold numbers of people who will say they were there and and a generation that learned that art is more than centuries-old paintings made by a long-dead master hanging in the confined, controlled space of a museum.

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