NEW YORK — Two men, city toughs with sideways Yankees’ hats and goatees, are walking in Central Park on a Sunday afternoon. One stops at the top of a hill, turns to the other and says, “Yo, check out that view.” The other looks out at a procession of larger-than-life orange gates snaking around the North Meadow and says, “Yeah man, that’s really pretty.” Pause. “I love orange. I think it’s my favorite color.”
This is not a typical New York scene, but New York has been looking distinctly atypical recently. Between “The Gates” and the recently reopened Museum of Modern Art, New York is reaffirming its reputation as a center of innovative modern art. But in this case, the art is reliant on public interaction, with both “The Gates” and MoMA’s newest exhibit “Groundswell” celebrating art’s ability to reinvent public space in a modern urban landscape.
On Feb. 12, environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, aided by 600 employees, unfurled 7,500 gates, all 16 feet high, all suspending large pieces of saffron cloth that sharply contrast with the dull, muddied earth and the drab brown buildings looming over the park. On this damp Sunday afternoon in February, thousands of people were visiting Central Park just to wind their way along walkways draped in orange cloth and to admire the crowded views of psychedelic color.
“The Gates” are, admittedly, an acquired taste. Native New Yorker Ned Hirschfeld ’08 had difficulty getting used to a radically altered Central Park.
“They took a little getting used to,” Hirschfeld said. “There are a lot of awkward angles, but if you see them from the right perspective, if you’re walking under or looking from far off, they can be pretty cool.”
The project has its naysayers: A vocal minority of New Yorkers has wondered whether there might not be a better way to spend $21 million. But, if nothing else, “The Gates” has attained further fame for the artists — and for other businesses in the park. A hot dog vendor, for example, told the New York Times he sold $1,000 worth of weenies in a single day.
Dave Kasten ’08, visiting Central Park for the first time on an expedition organized by Jonathan Edwards, Saybrook and Branford colleges, said “The Gates” helped him appreciate the rest of the park.
“I enjoyed ‘The Gates’; they gave a structure to the park,” Kasten said. “It was nice to see ‘The Gates’ off in the distance, as a subtle cue on where the park is going. They gave it a sense of structure and a point to walking. But the consensus of the group was pretty much that after the first 3,000 gates, they all started to blend together.”
The artists, who have previously wrapped the Reichstag in colored fabric and installed thousands of umbrellas simultaneously in California and Japan, raised the $21 million necessary for the project and devoted 25 years to planning the project and receiving civic approval. The installation, which has drawn huge crowds to Central Park, will remain standing for only 16 days and will close on Monday.
In contrast, an exhibit at the recently reopened Museum of Modern Art displays public art within museum walls. The Groundswell exhibit, scheduled to open today at MoMA’s new Midtown home, celebrates contemporary landscape architects’ efforts to reclaim industrial and degraded public spaces for practical and aesthetic purposes. The exhibit displays projects from 20 international cities through models and video. A model of the Garden of Forgiveness in Beirut shows a park teeming with plants symbolically evocative of peace in a country torn apart by civil war. Another model, called “Shanghai Carpet,” is a park built over an underground garage and accordingly sparse in plant life. Still another presents an ambitious vision for reinventing the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island as a cultural and environmental site.
This combination of practical and aesthetic functions is an essential characteristic of all architecture, whether traditional or cutting-edge. Now MoMA is breaking ground as a museum celebrating the antithesis of museum art. Groundswell presents art that belongs to public spaces — art that will inevitably be taken for granted — as worthy of being exhibited in its own right.
Taken together, “The Gates” and Groundswell demonstrate the willingness of artists to work with given environmental materials — though, in both cases, the environment is man-made. The MoMA projects are of more long-term significance, recording and projecting the revitalization of public spaces all over the world. The exhibit emphasizes art’s practicality in redeveloping urban sites — many of which have been abandoned or ruined by industrial indifference — into artwork that can be both admired and used as public space.
“The Gates,” on the other hand, are conspicuous in their very uselessness: This is art that exists only for aesthetic meaning, realized in drawing attention to the natural beauty of the urban environment.
But easy access to the artwork is time-sensitive. “The Gates” will be torn down after this weekend, and Groundswell will close May 16.
The installations may spark a closer relationship between landscape artists and the mainstream public throughout the art world, but for now the future is on exhibit for only a short time in Manhattan.