A masterwork orange

NEW YORK CITY -- By now everyone knows about “The Gates” project. In Central Park. About artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. No last names.

Everyone has a story, a tidbit, a factoid. Her “red” hair. His penchant for wrapping cans, bottles, islands. Their common birthday. Next June 13, Jeanne-Claude likes to say, they will be 140 years old.

They don’t miss much, these two. They take no public money, financing everything from his drawings. They insist on paying their legion of workers, if only a quarter above minimum wage -- and then go the extra mile to serve them breakfast and a hot lunch to boot.

They patrol the park obsessively to make sure none of the billowing pieces of saffron fabric interfere with branches or bird’s nests.

To resolve the problem of fabric bunching up, they devised a low-tech, lightweight painter’s extension pole with a tennis ball on the end to catch and reposition any errant cloth.

To meet complaints of nay-sayers protesting the waste and antics of silly artists, they counter with detailed plans to recycle all the materials, the ripstop nylon fabric scheduled for shredding into carpets, the aluminum corners to be morphed into house siding, the steel melted down, ready for new duty.

They -- and the project -- are larger than life. The color of the fabric -- not unlike the orange of a pair of painter (or prisoner) pants I wore three days straight - chosen for pure joy.

The month of the project -- a leafless, freezing and usually dull February -- all the better to see the color against the sky. The couple themselves.

“I became an artist only for love of Christo,” says Jeanne-Claude. “If he had been a dentist, I would have become a dentist.”

As so, because “The Gates,” as with all of their projects is about experiencing the installation and not just reading about it, we joined the parade of regular park visitors -- the dog walkers, joggers, bike-riders and bearers of briefcases -- the people who traverse the same footpaths every day.

We followed the river of color around the Sheep Meadow, the Bethesda Fountain, the Belvedere Castle, the ice rink, the zoo, the lake.

With a public project covering over one million square feet -- 50 acres -- there were no lines, there was no waiting.

But there was conversation. With the billowing saffron, some seven feet up from the sidewalk, we exchanged stories.

There was a man from Berlin who came to the gates, a woman walking three Maltese pups, another woman from Brooklyn (“Bet you don’t get to wear that coat very often,” she said after I told her I lived in Savannah. “Heck,” I said, “I don’t even own this; I borrowed it”) and a couple from St. Louis telling everyone they could about their own Forest Park, “larger than Central Park.”

Who knew? I said.

“We did,” the woman responded, “but notice one thing: We didn’t get ‘The Gates’ and they did.”

Like walking into a dark theatre and waiting for your eyes to adjust, the longer we stayed, the more we noticed. Like how the workers with the poles would reach into their pockets to hand off something.

When I went to inquire, she gave me the same treasure -- a one-by-one-inch piece of saffron fabric from the billowing pleats of color. A shard, if you will, from the 16-day project.

“We do it quietly,” she said, “so as not to create a feeding frenzy.”

Without thinking too much or too hard, we fell into the moment. And when the cold started ripping out our cheeks, we fell into plan B. Which is not hard to do in this city.

But since we didn’t want to return to a friend’s niece’s apartment -- spacious and a find, but above a 24-hour tire repair place and the sound of some hydraulic wrench sucking off lug nuts -- we headed for the Ed Sullivan theater and a chance to get on the Dave Letterman show.

No luck. After snaking around and through a series of poles and ropes, only to watch everyone in front of us get chosen, we headed for the Hello Deli, but not before exchanging phone numbers with Kevin, aka Dylan, a musician/production manager celebrating his 33rd birthday, who promised us free tickets to McReele, a Broadway show.

At the Deli, where we saw the show’s two trampolines, we stood in line with Letterman techies and ordered a corned beef on rye.

That’s where we met Diane, the art director, who alerted us to the night’s first ten-story drop -- about a dozen plastic colored bottles of soda. Just another art form, she said, thinking of Christo.

“Pat’s getting pretty good,” she said of the man who stands on the roof and does the tossing.

With that we joined a minor crowd behind barricades to watch streams of red, green and yellow paint sail through the air and splatter on the concrete. Then, with very little warning -- except for an alerted cameraman and lighting crew -- we heard the deep and solid thud of a television set falling from a roof.

“Next week it’s a snow mobile,” Diane the art director said.

For the final trick, we watched a techie set up six white bowling pins, and waited for Pat to drop three bowling balls before getting a 10th-frame spare. Eager for mementoes and a sucker for shards, I broke the line and picked up a long and narrow purple segment, formerly part of a bowling ball.

Never a dull moment, we noticed another crowd forming around the stage door. First to emerge was Charlie Sheen, cute, polite, dressed in black.

“Go President Bartlett,” I said. But no one cheered.

Then, frozen to the bone, we left before seeing Tori Amos.

But reaching into the pocket of my borrowed coat, fingering the shards of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s fabric of saffron and Letterman’s purple bowling ball and posing as someone took a picture of me in my saffron-colored pants, I was satisfied. I was happy.

Jane Fishman can be reached at gofish5@earthlink.net.

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