NEW YORK - By contract, workers in the employ of Christo and Jeanne-Claude must remove from Central Park within the next seven days every last trace of The Gates, that magnificent exercise in the alteration of a cityscape.
When the work is done, the most ambitious art project of this young century will become history, and New York will look just as it did a few weeks ago. This is precisely how Christo and Jeanne-Claude imagined it. They love the phrase "Once upon a time," with the emphasis on "once." Their art, which has its fairy-tale side, exists for now, not for eternity. It lives in the present, then quietly dies.
Now The Gates has begun finding another life in myth and anecdote, analysis and nostalgia. No one who saw it will ever forget it, and few of us will agree on precisely what it was we saw or how we understood it. I saw it first as a disappointment, examining it at the highly populated south end of the park. There, The Gates was overwhelmed by too many trees and too many people. The flaming orange banners were one of many elements, hardly the main one.
But two days later, back again on a Sunday morning, I saw it as a triumph, at the north end where the park touches Harlem. By the sparkling waters of Harlem Meer, the man-made lake, the banners marched in orderly ranks. The lake made them look more assertive, and the banners brilliantly outlined the lake. Other rows of banners trudged off over nearby hills, emphasizing every contour of the land. It was like seeing Central Park for the first time. This was an art of disclosure, an art that revealed previously unnoticed shapes and meanings.
If you stood under banners as the sun poured through, each of them became an orange canvas displaying the outlines of the twigs and branches above. The shadows created veined effects, as if we were looking through the skin of nature. These were temporary drawings, each of them lasting barely more than an instant, all the more precious because of it.
The Gates also came and went quickly, like an eclipse of the sun. In their evanescence they recalled the Japanese cult of the cherry blossom, which blooms briefly each spring and in Japanese poetry symbolizes the brevity of life.
Something else recalled Japanese culture: Nobody got a good picture of The Gates. Journalists took still photos and TV images, but no one captured the essential vitality of this phenomenon.
It was like the Zen stone garden at Ryoanji in northwestern Kyoto. Everyone comes away raving about it, but no one catches its meaning in a photograph. Like Ryoanji, The Gates was for experiencing, not for observing. New Yorkers and their visitors, sensing this fact, walked slowly, soaking up this temporary element in their world.
The Gates naturally accumulated its share of enemies. Witold Rybczynski, writing in Slate magazine, announced that the designers of the park, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, wouldn't have liked this project one little bit, since they thought their park didn't need art of any kind. Blake Gopnik of The Washington Post compared the arches holding the banners to giant croquet wickets. The Globe and Mail quoted someone who called them "cheap orange shower curtains strung up between two sticks," which would almost be an apt simile if curtains were solid rather than transparent and came in batches of 7,500. Hilton Kramer, editor of The New Criterion and former art critic of The New York Times, mounted the high horse from which he likes to view modern culture, waved his terrible swift sword and denounced "this massive assault on the most beloved of the city's parks ... an unforgivable defacement of a public treasure."
I'll always remember the oddities. The groundskeepers wandering through the park handed out little squares of orange fabric as free souvenirs. One morning in a restaurant I happened to see a woman who had taken her square and fitted it into one of her earrings, transforming herself into a walking ad for The Gates. Others carried orange bags or wore orange jackets. People soon decided that maybe saffron (the advertised colour) wasn't quite the right term for The Gates. If it was saffron, it was the shade of saffron closest to orange; if it was orange, then it was a saffron-like version of orange. It wasn't, in any case, what Buddhist monks wear.
David Briskin, an American conductor who often works in Canada with the National Ballet, lives at 103rd St. and Central Park West. He watched The Gates from beginning to end and settled on his own personal answer to an ancient question that The Gates brought forth once again: Is it art?
The art, Briskin decided, was to be found in Christo's drawings of The Gates, the idealized form in which he imagined his work. (Some of them can be seen till May 15 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in its superb exhibition of drawings and collages, Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Works from the Weston Collection.) The event in the park, on the other hand, was both more and less than art; it was an experience.
The day after my last glimpse of The Gates I came across a sentence A.J. Liebling sent to The New Yorker in the summer of 1944, when he was covering the liberation of Paris. "For the first time in my life and probably the last, I have lived for a week in a great city where everybody is happy." New York has had its troubles, above all Sept. 11, 2001, but it has experienced nothing like the German occupation of the 1940s. Still, I quickened to what Liebling wrote. There was something like that in the air of New York during the lifetime of The Gates. The project seemed to bring everyone together; even those not enamoured of it felt connected to it, and therefore part of the city in an unusual way. Someone said it created the communal feeling of the 2003 power blackout, but without the inconvenience.
Whatever its visual quality, The Gates had a social impact that was both immeasurable and deeply felt. For a moment it reminded us that the creation of shared happiness is among the highest civic virtues.