The last time I saw Christo, his heart was indeed warm and gay, even though his body was pooped and his mind somewhat rueful. The 50-year-old Bulgarian-born impresario of huge environmental art projects was tying up details on “Le Pont Neuf Empagnete , " which fulfilled his cherished desire to swath Paris’ longest and most historic bridge in 444,000 square feet of a lustrous, sandy, woven polymede fabric he calls “Paris Stone.”

The complex feat came off in a record seven days of marathon round-the-clock labor with frogmen, mountain climbers and carpenters hoisting the fabric into place and Christo doing much of the tying with 36,300 feet of rope. When completed last Sunday, the once-resistant French Establishment began paying its respects. A visit by Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac was to be followed later in the week with a ceremonial appearance by French President Francois Mitterrand, who had put his personal approval on the wrapping after much ceremonious dawdling. If all goes according to plan, the bridge will remain romantically enshrouded through next Sunday.

Christo said he never would have attempted the project except for his naivete, which kept him from realizing the molar-busting frustration of trying to penetrate the aloof and centralized French government. By the time they were ready to honor his achievement, he could find little in it but astringent irony.

All the same, the Pont Neuf project is a remarkable achievement in itself and in its implications about the current situation of art. Probably the most striking thing about the wrapped Pont Neuf is that it looks so, well, normal . Its golden fabric blends beautifully with the picturesque traditional buildings lining the Seine. Draping has been done so it neither impedes the flow of traffic nor significantly alters the shape of the bridge. All of its familiar muscular grace is intact from the 12 great arches to the ornate lamp standards and the semicircular parapets where lovers have stood dreaming (or contemplating a jump) since 1606, when the span was completed under Henry IV. That monarch’s noble equestrian statue stands undraped in its familiar spot above the prow of the Ile de la Cite.

In the past, Christo’s projects, from “Valley Curtain” to “Running Fence,” tended to dramatically interrupt and visually alter rural landscapes far from the centers of culture. With the Pont Neuf wrapping, Christo steps center stage in the very symbolic hub of the culture of Western civilization. And he has done so not by interrupting it but by joining it. He simply has enhanced the sculptural volumes of an already majestic structure. Christo has developed an elaborate symbolic mystique around his wrapping of the bridge that links the Left and Right banks, but what it boils down to is that now Christo fits in. He fits in to all the encrusted historical, personal and artistic associations linked with the Pont Neuf.


“This bridge has inspired great artists from Jacques Caillot to Joseph Mallord William Turner,” he said. “I was delighted to note that my simplification of its outline very closely resembles a Turner in the British Museum. Also, my work has always had a large element of urban planning and architecture and has been something for the ordinary people. This bridge was the first in Paris that ordinary people could cross and see the surrounding view. My work has always been more accepted by ordinary people than by the wealthy or the art Establishment.

“You know most of the opposition to my (1983) ‘Surrounded Islands’ project in Biscayne Bay came from disgruntled artists who threatened me personally and said they would blow up the project. We did an impact study for my project called ‘The Gates’ in Central Park, New York. It turned out that the more the people were WASPs and wealthy, the more they opposed the project.

“Here today, there were thousands of people on the bridge. I have made it into something more than a subject of art as it was for Turner; I have transformed it temporarily into a work of art in itself.”

Intimations of paranoia and megalomania aside, Christo is right about what he has wrought through the independence of his posture. Everything about his work beguiles the minds of people who are not usually concerned about art. They can readily grasp his entrepreneurial abilities in dealing with the problems of the real world, filing petitions and begging permissions. They can applaud an artist thumbing his nose at grant-giving institutions by raising his own funds, flying in the face of a brazenly commercial art system by making art whose main fruits cannot be turned into commodities.

And then there is all that work. Christo is indefatigable and manages to boss huge crews of engineers and workmen who hold him in high regard.

The projects offer such high drama, narrative complication and photogenic profile that the media absolutely dote on the guy. What other artist makes international front pages? He is great copy. By the normative standards of present-day culture, Christo (ne Javacheff) is our most famous and successful artist. He is an inescapable phenomenon.

Does that mean he is a great artist? Maybe and maybe not, but he is certainly to be reckoned with as an artist who reflects the values of present culture. His existence speaks volumes about the current fascination with media, celebrity and grandiosity. It challenges comfortable assumptions about what we want from art.

We want it spectacular, impressive and accessible. We also seem to want it traditional for, in a funny way, Christo is an artist of established convention. His work is more like the pompous atelier products of Peter Paul Rubens doing the Medici cycle or Charles LeBrun decorating Versailles than the modern conception of the artist as the lonely outsider baring his soul in a garret.

A funny thing happens if you imaginatively accept Christo’s work as setting the standard for art. Toddle off to any Parisian museum--say the Petit Palais--and look at whatever painting happens to be on view. Suddenly a Courbet or a Vuillard or any painting is characterized mainly by a sense of pathos. The poor things just look hopelessly idiosyncratic and shabby, as if the whole activity of painting were typified by the absurd impossibility of its ever achieving its own aims.

That probably means that there is something in Christo’s work we cannot accept and go on caring about other art. At its best moments, Christo’s Pont Neuf conveys a certain gilded magic. At sunset, it glows golden and blends with the molten waters of the Seine, its volumes both enhanced and somehow disembodied. Strolling its fabric-strewn walks gives the imaginative impression of gliding on liquid gold.

That agreeable sensation alternates with a muffled sense that the thing sometimes resembles a vast model made of corrugated cardboard and a suspicion that it borders on a bedizened Trump Tower kind of flash.

A certain bloodlessness creeps into every Christo project. His end products must, after all, be acceptable to the society at large, and after passing through so many hands--from civic clerks to presidents and engineers--they come out cold and decorative like perfect design solutions. If such an art truly sets our standards, we will lose something immeasurable thereby.

Oh well, maybe he will just hang it up. No one could blame Christo and his partner-wife Jean-Claude if they decided to rest on their laurels at 50.

“I don’t think that is possible for me,” he said. “I already have a new work in mind. Something quite different. Maybe in five years--after I wrap the Reichstag in Berlin--I would like to do a project in Japan and in California. There will be 3,000 giant umbrellas in each place and they will open simultaneously.”

“What else would we do?” asked Jean-Claude. “As it is, we work out technical details of the projects when we are making love.”

So there you have it, the tale of Christo mounting another grand fantasy. There is finally something endearing about the gargantuan madness of his schemes. Who of us would really hope there would never be another Conte de Montee Christo?