By  on January 12, 2005

NEW YORK — Most artists live for the ultimate validation of seeing their work hanging in a museum or an important collection. But Christo and Jeanne-Claude are temporal artists whose work exists only in the collective memories of those who experience it and the photographs and films that commemorate it after it’s been disassembled.

In a sense, then, documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles and his collaborator Antonio Ferrera have had as much to do with the couple’s artworks as Christo and Jeanne-Claude themselves. Maysles has documented every one of the Christos’ projects since 1974, and he and Ferrera now are filming the installation of, and reaction to, the couple’s latest work, “The Gates,” a spectacle of 7,500 panels of saffron-colored fabric that are being hung along 23 miles of footpaths in Central Park.

On a chilly winter morning, the two men can be found sitting in a heatless trailer parked near the Boathouse restaurant in Central Park. Ferrera is fidgeting with his camera and worrying about the quality of the light, which is gray at best. Maysles, who looks like he’ll disappear into his green parka if he relaxes any more, is content to leave the fretting to his younger colleague. After all, he’s been making films for half a century and working with the Christos for almost as long.

With his late brother David and other collaborators, Maysles made “Christo’s Valley Curtain” (1974), “Running Fence” (1978), “Islands” (1986), “Christo in Paris” (1990) and “Umbrellas” (1995). He also directed “The Salesman” (1968) about door-to-door Bible salesmen; “Gimme Shelter” (1970), a cult classic about the Rolling Stones’ American tour that culminated in a killing at the notorious concert at Altamont, and “Grey Gardens” (1976), about a mother and daughter who just happened to be the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis but lived in seclusion in a decaying East Hampton mansion.

Like all documentaries, “The Gates” has a spontaneous element — but so does the art work. For all the painstaking planning, nobody, including the artists, knows exactly how “The Gates” will be received by the public when the fabric panels are unfurled on Feb. 12. “There’s an open end to documentary filmmaking and an open end to ‘The Gates,’” says Maysles. “You can’t know what’s going to happen next.” 

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