My memories of Jeanne-Claude and my participation in “The Gates, (Project for Central Park, New York City) 1979-2005.”
It was a shock to learn of the sudden death of JEANNE-CLAUDE. Didn’t we all believe that her larger than life persona and brazen red hair would go on forever with her beloved husband and art collaborator Christo?
Their marriage and partnership in the various projects spanning over 50 years was a unique union, a never ending love affair of mutual admiration and support, a true 24/7 connection. They were hardly ever apart for all these years except when they launched “The Umbrellas” Project for Japan in 1991 when Jeanne-Claude opened in Ibaraki, Japan and Christo in Tejon Ranch in southern California simultaneously, later reuniting in Japan and of course when Christo went to the dentist.
Christo, the shy retiring artist in the background, was always protected and encouraged by Jeanne-Claude, the general’s daughter. She was totally in charge, always in command mode calling the shots, moving the projects forward, finding a way to make it happen, no matter what difficulties financial or political had to be overcome, no matter the length of time involved. She was the match that ignited Christo’s fire and the water that quenched his thirst. She devoted her entire life from the age of 23 when they met in Paris to realize his visions of transforming coastlines, erecting umbrellas in the rice paddy fields,wrapping buildings, trees, walls or bridges, and installing gates in Central Park. When asked why they wanted to do “The Gates” or any of the other projects Jeanne-Claude always replied, “We wish to create works of art of joy and beauty.”
For many years, the artists were more recognized and appreciated in Europe and Asia than in the US as has been the case with many contemporary artists in the last 50 years. This all changed with their final collaboration, “The Gates, (Project for Central Park, 1979-2005)” when their 26 year dream to erect 15,000 gates in Central Park became a reality. (7,503 actually). The title of the work, “The Gates” refers to the gates that were built by Olmstead and Vaux in 1858 to close the park at night and to prevent “undesirables” from entering during the day. The park was designed for the wealthy gentry who rode their carriages and gathered in the Mall in their finery in season. Christo wanted to create a project that invited ALL to enter freely and partake in the joy and beauty of its magnificent nature and architecture.
My first encounter with Jeanne-Claude was in the 1970s when I was working in the contemporary department at Parke-Bernet in New York. The telephone rang one day and it was Jeanne-Claude inquiring about the drawings and collages by Christo that were being offered in the upcoming auction. She boldly asked what the reserves were on the various lots. Did she not realize that this was an indiscreet question? After repeatedly asking for the reserves, and explaining that I could not and would not tell her, as it was a confidential agreement between the consignor and the auction house and was never disclosed, she expressed interest in bidding on the lots. Ah ha, now I would be able to assist her. She gave me a number and then would say is that enough? I kept encouraging her to raise her bid and when it reached over the reserve, I would say yes, that’s enough! Thus began my relationship with Jeanne-Claude not “Jean-Claude.”
Soon Christo and Jeanne-Claude were inviting me to dinner at their studio/home in Soho. It was always with the idea to network and further their projects, as they worked on at least two at a time and of course to reconnect with their vast number of friends and associates worldwide. Arriving alone, with friends or with clients at their graffitied red door with no number was always exciting. One rang the buzzer, and after announcing oneself entered the building and promptly was ordered to close the door behind very tightly. The steep walk up to the “parlor” floor was invigorating. Later, they installed a chair for their elderly guests who could no longer go up on their own. Jeanne-Claude would come down the stairs from a higher floor and would greet the guests with her flaming red hair, usually dressed in a Issey Miyake outfit smoking a cigarette. This scenario would be repeated for decades. In no time, Christo would appear, smiling, wearing his blue jeans and work shirt. In fact, I never saw him dressed in anything else…The introductions were made and Christo took the drink orders… wine, water, scotch etc… He was always congenial and energetic. Jeanne-Claude would sit on the white sofa against the wall offering the guests nuts and candy and begin her story. She would tell how she met Christo, about their son Cyril, the poet and that they lived in New York in this building since 1964. The guests shared stories and information and soon it was time to go to dinner at the French Culinary Institute on Broadway a few blocks from their home. Jeanne-Claude would do the seating and take the orders and tell the waiter how many people wanted fish or meat etc… Often, we had a tour of the kitchen. She also told a few ‘risques’ jokes and often Christo seemed to blush. This was a typical amusing evening shared with thousands over the decades.
I kept in touch with “the Christos” over the years and was always inspired by their enormous energy and work ethic. Jeanne-Claude insisted you telephone after 10:30 am as before that they were talking to Europe. They worked continuously through the day, never having lunch and enjoyed inviting guests for drinks and then out for dinner or openings etc…, every night and were regulars on the art scene together.
It was exciting to join them and visit the “Surrounded Islands” project for Miami, 1983, “Pont Neuf, Project for Paris, 1975-85,” “The Umbrellas” in Japan, 1991 and “Wrapped Reichstag” in Berlin 1995. It was in connection with this project that Jeanne-Claude became “Christo and Jeanne-Claude”. The German Museum that failed to accept this new collaboration was not given the exhibition of the preparatory works etc and the one that did in Berlin did receive the show and hung the banner proudly in Berlin “CHRISTO UND JEANNE-CLAUDE”. It was a great achievement for Jeanne-Claude, indeed well earned and deserved! In fact, Surrounded Islands was conceived by Jeanne-Claude and the choice of pink fabric was hers. The views from the airplane and helicopter rides were glorious!
That summer of 1995, I was at a dinner party in Southampton and was enthusiastically describing the beauty and power of the Wrapped Reichstag to Marquette de Bary my dinner partner. When he asked what project the Christos wanted to do next, my response was immediate, “The Gates” in Central Park. Mark mentioned that his wife Pat was the President of the Women’s Committee and that there was a man very involved in the Central Park Conservancy who might be of help. They organized a dinner at their home in September for us to meet. Guess who was my dinner partner this time? Mike Bloomberg, private citizen and CEO of Bloomberg LLP. When I told him that I had been the director of the contemporary art department at Sotheby’s and was now a private dealer, he bluntly announced that he hated contemporary art. Strike one, I turned my head to talk to the gentleman on the other side. However, we continued our conversation and I did my best to describe the projects that Christo and Jeanne-Claude had created over the years. It was not an easy sell… In l979, Gordon Davis the Parks Commissioner had turned down their proposal and the project lay dormant all these years. Since 1980, Central Park has been run by the Central Park Conservancy founded by Betsy Barlow Rogers which raised private funds to maintain and restore the park. This group consisted of a powerful conservative group living on or near Central Park. You can imagine what their reaction would be to have 15,000 orange gates installed in the park for a couple of weeks.
Shortly after the dinner, Mike organized a meeting with Ira Milstein, Chairman of the Central Park Conservancy board, in his office which he attended. Armed with many catalogues and books of previous projects from Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the presentation was made. It was virtually impossible for the group to grasp any part of the artists’ intent, that it would be a temporary installation and that they do not require any funding. Concerns included damage, security, and crowding in the park. The recent Reichstag project in Berlin had been very successful. It had attracted a huge increase in tourism and in fact the German government had asked Christos to extend the installation past the usual 14 days. Mike asked what would happen if the artists ran out of money. In fact, this had been an issue with the Reichstag and Deutsche Bank loaned them $5m against their own collection. No problem, there would be no requests for money. When asked what I was doing there and what I wanted on their behalf, my response was immediate and to the point! Permission to go forward with the project. Just say YES!
The next step was a meeting at the Christos’ studio with Mike Bloomberg, Pat de Bary and Nancy Misset, President of the Women’s Committee. We all headed downtown together with Mike’s car following mine. It was a contrast in uptown — downtown thinking and being. We all walked up the steps to the second floor. Upon entering, Mike asked Jeanne-Claude about the Umbrellas project in Japan where one man was killed and oddly enough another one at the same time in California. She answered in the affirmative and said this occurred when there was an electrical short when they were dismantling the large concrete bases for the umbrellas. They took a decision to immediately close down the project. It was hard to believe that Mike brought this up right away, possibly to clear the air. After this inauspicious beginning, the uptowners seemed taken with the artists and the visit went well. Christo brought out several large drawings of the Gates and explained with great enthusiasm what they wished to do in the park and how it would look from different areas in the park.
Many more meetings followed including Regina Perrugi, President of the Central Park Conservancy who did not favor the project at all. One particularly difficult meeting was with Doug Blonsky, the landscape architect who took us on a tour in one of the park’s golf carts on a brisk March morning in 1996. It was a breakthrough for the Christos to be in the park and have the opportunity to see the progress that had been made under the Central Park Conservancy stewardship. However, often throughout the tour, when Christo stated “We will put the gates over here, near the statutes, etc and over there, Doug would say, “No Christo, we cannot have any gates here or there and Christo would become very agitated. His original plan was to put 15,000 gates in all areas of the park.
The overall feeling was that there was too much opposition to “The Gates” and no way to move forward. Henry Stern, the Parks Commissioner was totally against it as was the Central Park Conservancy Board. No one thought it would ever get approval. The artists were resigned that it would never happen! No further meetings took place.
In early November of 2001, I greeted the Christos at a Christie’s Sunday brunch and said to Christo, “Mike is going to win the election next week and become the Mayor and we will do “The Gates.” To which Christo promptly replied, “Linda, you are crazy, Mike will never win the election and we will never do ‘The Gates.” After repeating my original statement, I walked away. It was my firm belief that Mike would win and see the benefit economically for the city after 9/11 to do “The Gates.” Late Tuesday night Mike Bloomberg became the Mayor of New York. It was a sweet victory! The first call on Wednesday morning was from Christo…” So what are you going to do now that Mike’s the Mayor? My response was that I had no idea but I would think about it and let him know.
In the following days, Mike’s team was being assembled and Patti Harris was chosen as one of the deputy mayors. Excellent choice! We had met many years prior when my son was a summer intern at Bloomberg through the Trinity High School Program and later my daughter worked for a brief period after graduating from Georgetown. Good news for the art community as Patti had worked under Mayor Koch and was very close to Mike. She was always direct to the point, exceptionally bright, humble and a delight to work with.
A phone call to Patti to discuss “The Gates” project took me by surprise. She was totally aware of the project and knew that Mike had visited the studio several years ago. She suggested I contact her in 3 months when the new administration was settled in. This was received with a grain of salt when I reported back to Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
Much had changed in the interim in the Central Park Conservancy’s leadership, Adrian Benepe had replaced Henry Stern as Parks Commissioner and Doug Blonsky had replaced Regina Peruggi as President. These two young talented individuals provided a fresh hope and new possibilities for going forward with “The Gates.” In due time, a meeting was organized to visit Christo and Jeanne-Claude in their studio with Patti, Adrian and Doug. However, despite our hope for more openness to “The Gates,” there was much skepticism on their part. The idea of bombarding their beloved Central Park with thousands of orange gates seemed preposterous. The same issues were brought up again and again from the Gordon Davis era. It did not seem likely that we would make any progress even with the new team. Christo was discouraged and didn’t think we’d ever make any progress. However, in my heart of hearts I knew it was the right timing for the project. It was my view that it would be accomplished with Mayor Mike’s astute financial realization that after 9-ll-01 it was just what was needed to perk up the city and the psyche of New Yorkers, not to mention enriching the city’s coffers. The Mayor had been informed of the huge success in Berlin during The “Wrapped Reichstag” Project.
After many months, delays and quiet behind the scenes meetings with various individuals involved with the park, it became apparent that there were three major issues that had to be resolved, all overwhelming, challenging and difficult!
- No holes in the ground
- Number of gates i.e size of the project
- Payment to Central park Conservancy
The first one was the key concern of the Central Park Conservancy and rightly so. Since the mid l980’s, the park has undergone a multi million dollar restoration with 85% private and 15% city funds. It was a unanimous decision. The board members adamantly refused to allow holes in the ground to install the 15,000 gates. How to proceed? Upon discussing this objection with Jeanne-Claude she immediately presented their engineer, Vince Davenport with the challenge of solving “the holes in the ground” issue. After much experimenting and revising, Vince created black bases which would be placed on the ground and the gates would be fitted into the bases. Voila! “No holes in the ground.”
The second issue was the size of the project. In June of 2002, the Mayor set up a meeting with Doug to take us into the park. This time it was a walking tour. We met at the entrance of the West 81st street at 7 am. It was my suggestion to Christo that we listen to Doug and learn the needs of the park and no arguing. We had to know what would work for the park in order to make progress to gain approval from the mayor. The group consisted of Christo, Jeanne-Claude,Vince Davenport, his wife Juanita, Vladimir, Christo’s nephew, Doug and myself. We walked for hours. It was a hot sunny day. It was that day that Christo made the decision to create taller gates, 15 feet high as opposed to the original 10 feet high. This was due to the fact that the trees had grown substantially since the 1970s when he first envisioned the project. Doug led the group and continuously commented on where he would not allow any gates including the Rambles, various pathways where ambulances had to have clearance, near steps, statues, bridges, ponds and many more areas. Christo listened quietly without any objections. At the end of the day, I asked Doug to provide Christo with a map of Central Park marking the areas where he wished no gates to be installed and stating that no gates would be installed in those areas. Christo nodded in agreement. Now Doug had control of where the gates should be installed according to the park’s needs. As a result, the project was literally divided in half. 7,503 gates were installed as opposed to the 15,000 Christo originally proposed.
The third issue was a bit tricky as it was a delicate matter. It came to my attention that the Central Park Conservancy wished to have a donation of $3M. Upon giving this information to Jeanne-Claude, she immediately objected and said, “Tell your rich friends uptown in the conservancy that we are poor struggling artists and have no money and hung up on me. After mustering the courage to call her back, I said Jeanne-Claude “il faut profiter” (one must take advantage) with Mike in office and besides it’s simply the cost of doing business in the park, I know you can get the money together” and quickly hung up the phone. The money was organized and slowly everything fell into place.
The major issues to get permission to go ahead with “The Gates” were resolved. The next issue was the timing, which is what season to install them in the park. The artists wished to have no leaves in the trees in order to have complete unobstructed views of the gates and the saffron fabric. Their ideal time would be late October, early November, that is autumn. However, the Mayor did not agree to that. He wanted the project done when the park was the least inhabited, that is during the winter and that was that! Christo and Jeanne-Claude agreed with Mike. On January 22, 2003, a 43 page contract was signed with the Mayor and the artists. Work could now begin on the project.
After two long years of intense planning, the project was officially launched on February 12, 2005, Mayor Bloomberg launched the opening of the project on February 12, at 8:30am with Jeanne-Claude and Christo, with the artists in attendance. By the afternoon, 7,503 gates were unfurled, 16 feet tall varied in width from 5-6 inches to 18 feet, according to 25 different widths of walkways along 23 miles of walkways in Central Park. From each gate hung a panel of deep saffron-colored nylon fabric. The site specific work of art ran through February 27, 2005, 16 days instead of the traditional 14, to include two weekends.
The cost of “The Gates” offered by the artists was $21M, although a Harvard case study could only account for $5-6M. As with all of their previous projects, “The Gates” was entirely financed by the artists through their C.V.J. Corporation (Jeanne-Claude Javacheff, President), with the sale of preparatory studies, drawings, collages and scale models, earlier works of the l950’s and l960’s and original lithographs of other subjects.
The financial benefit to New York City was $254,000,000!