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Christo’s Chroniclers

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...

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.” 

This story first appeared in the January 12, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Some doubted the art work would ever get made. The 26-year, David-and-Goliath saga of “The Gates” has had moments of drama and intrigue, but mostly it’s the plodding pace of bureaucracy that would have defeated less determined souls.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are accustomed to such long-running battles and are nothing if not tenacious. One of their projects, “Wrapped Reichstag,” which covered the Berlin landmark in thick woven polypropylene fabric tied with blue polypropylene rope, was completed after a 24-year struggle and other works have been years in the making.

When the artists began seeking approval for “The Gates” in 1980, Maysles and his team filmed the community board hearings, which were contentious at times. “The Gates” exposed the city’s racial fault lines as the poor neighborhoods to the north of Central Park voted in favor of it, while the park’s richest neighborhoods to the south and east were opposed. Gordon Parks, the parks commissioner at the time, vetoed the idea.

But last January, Mayor Michael Bloomberg finally green-lighted the temporary art.

The price tag for “The Gates” is estimated at $20 million to $30 million and the artists’ projects are entirely self-financed through the sale of Christo’s studies, preparatory drawings, collages, scale models, earlier works and original lithographs on other subjects. They don’t accept sponsorship or donations.

That doesn’t mean companies aren’t lining up to attach themselves to the vision. When Robert Chavez, president and chief executive officer of Hermès USA, saw Christo’s sketches for “The Gates” in The New Yorker, he was determined to get the company involved.

“When I saw the saffron color it seemed to be a natural for us,” says Chavez. “There’s also our store’s proximity to the park. We always want to do things that involve the city and the community.”

The documentary will be previewed at the Gallery at Hermès at 691 Madison Avenue from Jan. 20 through Feb. 27. On Jan. 19 and Jan. 25, Hermès will host discussions with the artists and filmmakers. Sales of a $295 commemorative scarf will benefit Nurture New York’s Nature Inc., a nonprofit foundation that creates public awareness for the importance of nature to the city. The film will air on HBO later this year.

“The film is a tribute to the courage and audacity of these two people,” says Maysles. “It takes a mature person to devote every moment of their lives and every penny of their savings in such an open way.”

Adds Ferrera, “They’ve mistakenly been called ‘wrapping artists,’ but their work is revealing and revelatory. They’re revealing us to ourselves, which is the best thing an artist can do.”