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Ultimate wrap artists

HBO chronicles Christo and Jeanne-Claude's art and the herculean efforts behind it.

February 25, 2008|Sam Adams | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — In terms of sheer scope, there are few artists who can compete with Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Over the last 40 years, they have wrapped the Reichstag in fabric and strung a 24-mile-long fence through Sonoma and Marin counties, incorporating tons of steel, millions of square feet of fabric and untold thousands of man-hours.

The six documentaries Albert Maysles has made about the couple's projects are modest by comparison, running a mere six hours in all. But in their own way, they represent an achievement no less impressive than any of the massive environmental installations whose creation they chronicle. Covering more than 30 years in the public and private lives of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the films make an unparalleled record of the artistic process, which for the couple is equal parts individual inspiration and industrial contracting. The films double as an account of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's stormy and argumentative but, to all appearances, happy marriage, making them a sort of bohemian equivalent to Michael Apted's "Up" series. "The Gates," the latest film in the series, will have its television premiere Tuesday on HBO.

Picking up the couple's story 12 years after "Umbrellas," "The Gates" chronicles their 26-year effort to adorn Central Park's walkways with about 7,500 steel and vinyl portals, each dangling a rippling curtain of translucent orange fabric above the heads of passersby. Like all of the Christo installations, "The Gates" was temporary. Sixteen days after they were unveiled in February 2005, the gates were dismantled, remaining only in the collective memory of the millions who flocked to see them.

Although they last only a matter of weeks, the mammoth undertakings often take years, and sometimes decades, to realize. "The Gates' " first section details the couple's abortive attempt to stage the project in 1979, when they were met with a wall of opposition from city officials and cultural guardians. Gordon J. Davis, then New York City parks commissioner, explains, "This is a city where, if everybody says yes, one person has to say no." (Their current project is "Over the River," which would drape about seven miles of the Arkansas River in Colorado in translucent fabric panels. If achieved as scheduled in 2012, it would be 20 years after they began working on it in earnest.)

Twenty-three years after their first run at "The Gates," the pair got a lucky break when Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor. An advocate of public art, Bloomberg had supported "The Gates" as a trustee of Central Park's conservancy, and his yes outweighed the other no's. After the shock of Sept. 11, Bloomberg saw the project as a way to "reassert the daring and imaginative spirit" of the city.

Sheila Nevins, the head of HBO's documentary division, was among the New Yorkers who agreed. "Having seen a great monument wrecked by terrorism, it was extraordinary to see a monument erected of steel to art," she said recently by telephone.

The result, as displayed in "The Gates' " impressionistic final third, was a sinuous river of fabric running from midtown Manhattan, and park walkways crowded with onlookers even on the coldest of February days. One dazzled patron observes, "It's like the whole park is the lobby of a theater."

With his brother, David, Albert Maysles was a pioneer of the observational documentary style that became known as direct cinema. The lightweight, portable equipment developed during the 1960s allowed the Maysles to achieve an extraordinary proximity with their subjects in such films as 1968's "Salesman" and 1970's "Gimme Shelter," although for some, 1976's "Grey Gardens" was too close for comfort. David died in 1987, but he is credited as "The Gates' " co-director, along with Antonio Ferrara and Matthew Prinzing. (As a tribute, the 1979 footage includes a brief shot of David with his microphone, tapping it with a note pad to signal the end of a reel.)

"Artists generally, they work at a canvas and that's it," Maysles said while slurping homemade soup in his pleasantly cluttered Harlem town house. "What they've made ends up in someone's collection on a wall or in a museum."

Art by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, by contrast, exists in the public sphere and, for this reason, the movies implicitly argue, is often better appreciated by the hoi polloi than the highfalutin. In "Valley Curtain" (1974), a golfer watches quizzically as construction workers string a massive swatch of orange fabric across a Colorado valley, explaining to her friends that Christo is "an artist, one of those people who paint pictures." Compare that with the hard-hatted worker who looks up at his handiwork and says simply, "This is a vision."

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