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Documentary unfurls 'Gates'

An HBO film about the long-sought Central Park project premieres at LACMA.

January 19, 2008|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

For decades, environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been waging guerrilla war on the boundaries of art, strafing skeptical bureaucracies, winning cautious hearts and minds, and turning even their adversaries into co-conspirators in their controversial outdoor exhibits.

They surrounded 11 islands in Miami's Biscayne Bay with pink synthetic fabric. They wrapped Berlin's Reichstag in silver cloth. They erected 300 giant umbrellas in the California countryside.

Thursday night, admirers of the artists filled an auditorium at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the premiere of an HBO documentary about their latest piece, "The Gates." For that project, which went up in New York's Central Park in February 2005, the artists erected 7,503 16-foot gates and unfurled from them long panels of fabric in a shade of orange familiar to followers of the Dalai Lama.

The couple first sought official permission for the project in 1979, and the 98-minute documentary, to air on the cable channel beginning Feb. 26, records a conversation between a much younger Christo and a New York official who warns him that the project will require a lot of explaining: "Will it cause cancer? Is it fattening?" And "Why do you do this? You're going to pay for all this?"

By the time New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg dropped the first wall of saffron fabric in the park before a cheering crowd, even TV pundit George Stephanopoulos had gravely opined about the merits of the $21-million project, which the artists say they paid for with sales of their work.

"I would just like to say thank you, thank you for your vision [and] perseverance in your glorious, joyous projects," said a woman at the premiere who had pulled her kids out of school to travel to see "The Gates." "It was a love note, a valentine to New York."

The LACMA premiere was likewise something of a celebration of the artwork, complete with laughter, applause and a standing ovation.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who helped win support for the California umbrellas installation, put his arm around Christo and hugged him.

LACMA Director Michael Govan warmly introduced the documentary -- also called "The Gates" and directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles, along with Antonio Ferrera and Matthew Prinzing -- saying of the project that, like the artists' other works, "for us art historians, it changed the nature of sculpture, literally engaging the community."

The film ably conveys the powerfully seductive physicality of the couple's work, something difficult to describe. As rain and snow fell on the billowing waves of fabric, "The Gates" became a mecca for playful children, adults reading poetry, lovers kissing and Buddhist monks who clanged on the metal frames as they chanted and prayed. When it came down, New Yorkers were lamenting its fleeting 16-day life span.

"People were intoxicated in Central Park," a man at the premiere told the artists. "It was comparable to Kyoto when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. It was insane! But can you talk about recycling?"

One of the more intriguing things evident Thursday was the dynamics of the long marriage that has nurtured the couple's projects.

Jeanne-Claude was engaged to someone else when she and the Bulgarian-born Christo fell in love in 1958, when he was painting portraits for a living and was commissioned to do one of her mother. By the time she married, they say, she was pregnant with their son, Cyril Christo, a poet. Her marriage lasted three weeks, and she and Christo have been together ever since.

Until 1995, Christo was the frontman, a decision they say was a pragmatic attempt to cope with an art world unaccustomed to collaborative works. Now the nature of their creative partnership is out of the closet.

"We are always arguing" during the creative process, Christo said in a conversation before the premiere. "We need a tremendous critical attitude in the decision-making."

"Do you want to know is he still my lover?" the flame-haired Jeanne-Claude demanded. "Yes, he is."

Christo's lopsided visibility is something they now seek to correct, and their website (www.christojeanneclaude .net) says, "The most common error is the misunderstanding that the artist is Christo . . . the artists are Jeanne-Claude and Christo."

Perhaps that is why, onstage Thursday, Christo deferred to Jeanne-Claude. When a young woman studying at CalArts asked what advice they might have for young artists, Jeanne-Claude pushed the microphone to Christo. He pushed it back. Finally she answered.

"If you are willing to work 17 hours a day, seven days a week, never take a vacation, put all your thoughts and money into your art, you will be able to do what you want.

"The most difficult part is to know what you want. Once you know: Do it!"

Some in the audience more curious than converted were intrigued by this obsession.

"It's one of those things you say, 'I don't know why he did it,' " said London native Clement von Franckenstein, a distinguished-looking silver-haired baron in jeans and black leather. "But I'm glad he did."

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anne-marie.oconnor @latimes.com

Times researcher John Jackson contributed to this report.

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