NEW YORK – "The Gates" (search) are open — all 7,500 of 'em.
The biggest art project in New York City's history debuted Saturday in Central Park with the unfurling of saffron-colored fabric banners suspended in 16-foot-high frames, providing a splash of sunrise 26 years in the making.
"I came for this. It's poetry in motion. It's for the moment — a kind of Zen," said Barbara Knorr, a German-speaking visitor who came from Switzerland just to see the exhibit created by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (search).
"The Gates" is the pair's first major project in New York City. It features 7,500 frames with their hanging orange-tinted fabric, creating what the artists billed as "a visual golden river" along 23 miles of footpaths in the park.
Knorr took in the sight from the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which offered a panoramic view of lines of the wind-blown banners snaking through the trees in the park below.
Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion.
"It's art," pronounced 8-year-old Mikaela Simon, of Shiloh, N.J., as she sketched the scene in a notebook on the museum roof.
Thea Stone said the artists "created a temple in the park; it's become like a holy place to walk."
The 16-day exhibit was expected to lure tens of thousands of art lovers and the merely curious to Manhattan.
It opened with cheers as Mayor Michael Bloomberg (search) raised a hooked baton to pull a tab and release the first swatch of fabric from a sleeve at the top of a gate. A class of fourth-graders counted down the seconds.
By noon, more than 1 million square feet of fabric had been freed to flap in the stiff breeze.
The work's official title — "The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005" — refers to the artists' conception of the project 26 years ago. The Parks Department rejected the idea in 1981. They are paying for the project themselves and estimate the cost could total as much $21 million.
"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. "And that's really what innovative, provocative art is supposed to do."
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were reticent to discuss their creation.
"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."
Their previous projects included "Wrapped Reichstag (search)," which wrapped the German parliament building in Berlin in silvery fabric in 1995, and for "The Umbrellas" of 1991, with 3,100 large umbrellas opened in valleys of California and Japan.
Whether "The Gates" is deemed art or not, the work accomplished no small feat: It nudged thousands of New Yorkers out of bed on a freezing Saturday morning.
Ali Naqui had to be dragged to the unveiling by his fiancee, but then was smiling by the time he joined the crowd. "It's a bit insane, but that's why everybody is here," he said.
One New York fourth-grader had her own art critique.
"It's a waste of money, but it's fabulous," said Shakana Jayson. "It brings happiness when you look at it."