The project opened with Mayor Michael Bloomberg dropping the first piece of saffron-colored fabric to the cheers of a huge crowd. He was joined by exhibit creators Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
The crowd counted down the seconds before Bloomberg, a longtime backer of the project, opened the exhibition at 8:30 a.m.
The weather was windy and cold as the first fabric dropped from one of the 7,500 16-foot-high gates, creating what the artists billed as "a visual golden river" along 23 miles of the park's footpaths. More than 1 million square feet of fabric was used by the artists.
Its official title — "The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005" — refers to the artists' conception of the idea 26 years ago. It was expected to take about two hours to drop the fabric from all the gates.
"It's a bit insane, but that's why everybody is here," said Ali Naqui, who was brought to the unveiling against his will by his fiancee.
The artists assembled the mountain of materials needed to build the gates in a vast warehouse outside Manhattan. They used 22,500 poles, 165,000 bolts and 7,500 panels of fabric that was designed so grafitti could be easily wiped from it.
"The Gates" will cost an estimated $21 million. The artists pay for the art by selling Christo's drawings to wealthy collectors for as much as half a million dollars a piece. No money is accepted from taxpayers, donors, or corporate sponsors.
Among the first folks there were 17 fourth-graders from an elementary school in Queens. The group boarded a bus before sunrise and made the trip into Manhattan, where they were suitably impressed by the spectacle.
"It's a waste of money, but it's fabulous," said student Shakana Jayson. "It brings happiness when you look at it."
Visitors to the park had already admired the vinyl gates, even with the fabric still tucked inside "cocoons" on top of the structures.
"I think it's fantastic," said Dominique Borel, who was walking her dog, Mickey, on Friday. "I love it. I think it's exhilarating." Mickey was wearing an orange scarf around his neck in honor of the project.
The artists have said there is no best place to see the piece, but art connoisseurs and the merely curious staked out the best views. James Ellis said he planned to see the piece from Belvedere Castle.
"February's always been a dreary month for me, so I think it kind of spices it up a little bit and makes me want to come out to the park at a time when I usually wouldn't," Ellis said.
"I can't promise, particularly since this is New York, that everyone will love 'The Gates,' but I guarantee that they will all talk about it," Bloomberg said Friday at a news conference with the artists. "And that's really what innovative, provocative art is supposed to do."
Although Christo and Jeanne-Claude's have invested so much time and effort in the project, they were reticent to discuss "The Gates."
"It's very difficult," explained Christo. "You ask us to talk. This project is not involving talk. It's a real, physical space. It's not necessary to talk. You spend time, you experience the project."
"The Gates" is the pair's first major project in New York City. In their most recent project, "Wrapped Reichstag" (Berlin, 1995), they used a silvery fabric to wrap the building, creating a flow of vertical folds.
The city has said tens of thousands of visitors may come to "The Gates," over 16 days. Some of them have seen other works by the artists, who have created temporary art projects around the world.
Sibyl Rubottom, who saw the artists' "The Umbrellas," in which 3,100 umbrellas were opened in California and Japan in 1991, said she started planning her trip to New York from San Diego last spring.
Rubottom said she planned to return to the park on Saturday and would go to an "apres-'Le Gates' opening party" at a friend's house. Rubottom was wearing an orange jacket and scarf, and her orange eyeglass frames happened to match, too.
"I dressed for the occasion," she said.