Christo Takes Manhattan

<b>Morley Safer</b> On 69-Year-Old Wrap Artists Christo & Jeanne Claude

The canvas is one of the most revered pieces of real estate in the country: 800 acres of urban oasis that is now threaded with 7,500 gates -- each suspending a free-flowing, shimmering, saffron-colored flag.

This new, New York landscape is one thing. But the artists who made it happen are, like their art, larger than life. Correspondent Morley Safer talks to the one-couple art movement, the Christos. Their work together has caused a buzz on four continents. They are full of hype, and they deliver on it.

"I have unstoppable urge to do this project. The absolutely irrational, irresponsible, with not any justification," says Christo about his newest project. "This project is happening only because the artist likes to have them."

But what is the point of something like The Gates? The Christos will tell you there is no point – no symbolism, no moral or intellectual statement. Just something wonderful to look at.

"It's only the gates. A work of art of joy and beauty," says Christo's wife, Jeanne-Claude. "We do not build messages. We do not build symbols. It's only a work of art. Nothing else."

The Christos are an obsessive, two-headed force of nature. Born on the same day 69 years ago, they speak mainly with one voice – hers.

"Because when we arrived in United States, he didn't speak a word of English," says Jeanne-Claude, of her husband, who never learned English in school.

"Christo is the pure angel, the dreamer, the artist," says Jeanne-Claude. "Jeanne-Claude is the art dealer, the administrator, the organizer."

"Christo" became "Christo and Jeanne-Claude" a decade ago.

"I think the basic issue there is that his projects are the whole enterprise. And therefore if she is involved in much of that, then I think he, quite rightly, sees her as a genuine collaborator," says Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic of the New York Times.

"I think she is essential to it. At this point, they're inseparable. And their act of course, while occasionally a little overbearing, is part of his whole aura."

The Christos have been polishing their act, and that aura, since they first met in Paris almost 50 years ago. She was a daughter of privilege. He was an artist, a refugee who had fled Stalinist Bulgaria.

In the West, Christo was determined to create a new kind of art – owned by no one, influenced by nothing but his own vision.

"All our project is about freedom. Nobody can buy this project. Nobody owns this project," says Christo. "Nobody can charge tickets for this project. They are there for a few days, and they're gone."

And so, their work is ephemeral, fleeting, like the 3,000 giant umbrellas they installed simultaneously outside Los Angeles and Tokyo. Christo called it a "gentle disturbance." After two weeks, it was only a memory.

In 1983, Christo and Jeanne-Claude went south. Target: Miami's Biscayne Bay. Mission? Dress 11 islands in pink. It was either appealing, or appalling. For sure, it was Florida.

"A woman came to me. And she looked very furious. And she say, 'I saw it on television. It's very ugly. It looks like a giant spill of Pepto-Bismol,'" recalls Jeanne-Claude. "Not even an hour later, an elderly gentleman came and said, 'Are you responsible for that?' And I said, 'Yes, sir.' And he grabbed my arm and he said, 'Bless you. I have never seen anything as beautiful in my entire life. It looks like a giant spill of Pepto-Bismol.'"

Whether you're one of the pro-Christos, or the anti-Christos, they always have the last laugh. For instance, they occupied Paris and wrapped the Pont Neuf – the city's oldest bridge -- in silky, golden fabric. It was described as "gilded magic," but the magic followed a decade-long assault on Paris' bureaucratic barricades.

"We had a running battle against our opponent, Mr. Jacques Chirac, for 10 years -- 10 years," says Jeanne-Claude.

President Chirac, then mayor of Paris, finally surrendered. For the Christos, battling bureaucracy is not only part of the work, it's part of the fun -- and they've raised it to an art form.

"You choose projects where you know there is going to be not just minor resistance, but huge resistance," says Safer. "Resistance that lasts for decades. And you seem to relish it?"

"No, but there is no other way," says Jeanne-Claude. "We don't relish the resistance."

"We are not masochist," adds Christo, laughing.

"It's unavoidable," says Jeanne-Claude.

The Christos always wind up in that place where art and politics collide. In the German parliament, they fought six successive presidents for permission to do a modest project – wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin, a bittersweet symbol of a united Germany.

"It seemed to be the, not just a present to the Germany, but a kind of chrysalis that out of this unwrapping would come this new idea of a Germany," says Kimmelman.

With 90 professional climbers and a million square feet of silver fabric, they banished the ghosts of Germany's past. And a building once sinister became suddenly inviting. It was classic Christo -- overcoming the cynics through iron will and relentless optimism.

"It changes something maybe you've looked at everyday of your life but never closely," says Kimmelman. "And suddenly, you see it fresh. That's what really art is about."

With all their success, the Christos remained obsessed by one failure. A quarter century ago, New York City rejected their proposal to put those gates in Central Park. They were told the park would never be messed with.

"Then, a miracle happened in our life," says Jeanne-Claude. "A friend was elected mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg."

Bloomberg approved the project in a New York minute, denying the Christos the pleasure of arguing their case. "I think he [Christo] was disappointed," says Bloomberg. "He thought there'd be a big battle, and we said, 'We'd love to have you, let's do it.'"

The Christos took yes for an answer. So Christo dusted off his old drawings of the gates, and prepared new ones in the solitude of his Soho studio. "I like to be alone," he says. "The moment where I leave the studio, I am surround with engineers, people discussing, and I like to be alone."

But in a gallery below the studio, they don't want to be alone. Here's where they welcome rich collectors, who buy and buy and buy Christo's drawings. The drawings are the couple's lifeblood – it's how they finance their projects. The largest drawings can go for half a million dollars. They also sell scores of smaller ones, bringing in millions.

"We are not different from all the other artists. They create art. It is sold. The artist gets the money," says Jeanne-Claude. "With the money, the artist purchase whatever they please. We do exactly the same, only what pleases us is to purchase 5,000 tons of steel, 60 miles of vinyl poles."

In a vast warehouse outside Manhattan, they assembled the mountain of materials needed to build the gates: 22,500 poles, 165,000 bolts, 7,500 panels of fabric. It's art on an industrial scale, with an industrial-size price tag of $20 million - every penny of it coming out of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's pocket. Not a nickel is accepted from taxpayers, donors, or corporate sponsors.

Last week, armies of paid workers spread out around the park, anchoring the gates to 600-pound steel plates. The sheer weight makes the gates untippable and unstealable.

When the drapes came tumbling down, New York's village green was transformed from the Upper East Side clear up to Harlem. And something else happened, too. Those jaded New Yorkers who thought they'd seen it all were giddy with what Christo and Jeanne-Claude had done to their backyard.