A vicarious view of "The Gates" in New York City's Central Park

On this day in February 2005, New York City was aruffle over Mayor Bloomberg’s pet project: a piece of public art called The Gates by the artist known as Christo and his lady love, Jeanne-Claude.

I’d heard about it and had seen it in the news, but I had no idea how much controversy it had caused. Tonight I got the inside scoop at a sneak preview of the HBO documentary The Gates at St. Paul’s Minnesota Museum of American Art.

Christo is known for wrapping public buildings in fabric or in plastic—not always to the most glamorous effect, and for reasons that not even he can explain. “Do you ask a mother why she loves her baby?” says Jeanne-Claude.

So I can understand why the Park Board and city commissioners would have opposed the idea of 7,503 super-sized, orange fabric-paneled croquet wickets snaking through the venerable green space of Central Park. “How can you add art to a place that is art in itself?” asked one Park Board member. “That’s like Picasso painting over The Last Supper.” (Prone to drama, those park stewards.)

The artists argued with the city for 26 years, and only when Michael Bloomberg became the new mayor was the plan approved. Bloomberg loved it at first sight, snapped his fingers, and said, “Make it so.” Well, not quite so easily as Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard might have done, but it seemed that way in contrast to the strident opposition from his predecessors.

In the HBO documentary, we get a candid look at the tribulations that Christo and Jeanne-Claude endured to justify their artistic vision. My heart ached with every setback and rejoiced with every little bit of progress on the way to the manifestation of that vision—not so much because I loved the work or even knew it very well (I never got to NYC during the two weeks it was up), but because I know how art can open up the very hardest of hearts. What cannot be understood in words sometimes can be conveyed by color, motion and sound, or by texture or by an unlikely juxtaposition of objects.

In The Gates you hear bombastic oratory on the part of public officials condemning the very idea of an art installation in the park and calling it (surprise, surprise) a slippery slope. “What if the next artist’s vision is of men in speedboats towing bathing beauties? Or painting all the rocks bright pink and yellow? How could we say no to that once we say yes to this?” brayed one appointee.

And then we see the faces of New Yorkers at the launch of the exhibit, as a swath of orange fabric is unfurled from each of the steel arches. We see jaws dropping, toddlers squealing with delight, tourists snapping pictures, and appreciative eyes welling with tears.

Opponents of the installation had said that the project would obscure the trees and skylines that park lovers came to look at. But when orange squares of fabric rose and rippled in the February winds, that part of nature—the wind—became visible, and Central Park was transformed from its winter black-and-white into a cheerful, bobbing, waving flower garden.

These gates clearly were taking viewers IN rather than keeping them out. Taking them into the park, or into the city. Coming and going, they greeted you, like a Hawaiian “aloha” for hello or goodbye.

As one young man said on camera, “It’s like they’re inviting in something mysterious.”

The artists make no bones about what that something is. “It’s love. So much love,” Jeanne-Claude explains.

The Gates premieres Tuesday, February 26, 9pm CT on HBO.

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