''Do you see that man over there?'' said the veteran art-magazine editor to his new associate at the crowded opening. ''Don't ever look him in the eye, don't smile at him, and whatever you do, never, ever talk to him.''
The editor was talking about Charlie Finch, one of the mainstays behind Coagula, the low-rent giveaway zine that chronicles art-world goings-on from an angry outsider perspective. For the past five years, Coagula has been the publication that the art world loves to hate, and loves to read. The journal--for which he writes under the pseudonym Janet Preston--mixes some criticism with personal attacks, professional takedowns, gossip, and the occasional essay or interview. Later this month, an anthology of Coagula's first five years will be issued.
Shirttails hanging out, blond hair uncombed, rumpled and wild-eyed, Charlie Finch is a large man who frequents art openings and museum previews. At exhibitions he doesn't fancy, Finch can often be seen giggling maniacally in the corner with an associate, or glowering angrily at passersby. ''He's kind of like a necessary character,'' says Carol Greene, director of the Greene Naftali Gallery in Chelsea. ''That guy, wandering around with drool spilling out of his mouth, red-faced with anger. To be honest, I find him a little scary. You never know where that anger is going to lead. ''Greene's sentiments echo those of many of her peers.
In the end, the often reviled Finch may not need to go postal to make his voice heard in the art world. Recently, he has found himself increasingly in demand. First, Walter Robinson, the editor of ArtNet, an online art magazine, hired Finch to write a gossip column called ''The Royal Flush.'' Then David Bowie, who sits on the editorial board of England's esteemed Modern Painters magazine, announced that Finch is one of his favorite writers and invited him to contribute to the journal. This month, Most Art Sucks, the Coagula anthology, will be published by Smart Art Press. And Detour magazine has reported that a screenplay is in the works about the subterranean art-world adventures of Finch and his L.A. partner, Matt Gleason.
All of this sudden attention has not exactly filled Finch with modesty. ''Just as Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can was an icon for American art in the 1960s, and Spiral Jetty was an icon for the 1970s, Most Art Sucks is going to be the definitive art object for the late 1990s,'' Finch says proudly, if a bit incomprehensibly.
Finch is a conundrum in a lot of ways. He has adapted an underdog's point of view although he was brought up in a rarefied world of WASP privilege and cultural refinement. The son of a utilities company executive, Finch was educated at Andover and Yale (his best friend at both schools was the artist Peter Halley, whom he later savaged in his Coagula debut). He is known to have spent a few years working on Wall Street, though he refuses to comment on the subject. ''I am a WASP. We don't discuss money.''
Finch also worked as a campaign organizer for State Senator Julian Bond and as advance man on the abortive Gary Hart presidential campaign, and then abandoned politics. In the late 1980s he ran Real Art, an East Village gallery, and then had a several-year stint hosting an afternoon talk show on art and culture for WBAI.
''Charlie is a mischief-maker,'' says Robert Storr, a painting and sculpture curator at the Museum of Modern Art. ''He gave up a career in politics, probably because he didn't like what he found there. I don't think he is cynical. He is a disillusioned liberal who is interested in how power operates and how it is abused.''
''Charlie doesn't make mistakes,'' says Robinson, his ArtNet boss, who wrote the preface for Most Art Sucks. ''He is a great gossip writer, and he is absolutely fearless. The thing I like about Charlie is that he has created this position of power for himself out of nothing--out of his voice alone.''
Others are not so positive. ''It is a sad, sad tale,'' says writer Anthony Haden-Guest. ''There is so much personal venom in what he writes and no coherent aesthetic. Definitely he would spread horrible rumors about me, really unbelievable and wildly untrue things. Still, I kind of like him in a crazy way.''
There is no doubting that Finch is an intelligent and impassioned man. In his conversation, as in his writing, he veers wildly between trenchant critiques of the art world and wildly personal assaults and remarks betraying a scatological fixation.
''The art world increasingly resembles the classical music world or the poetry world. The brilliant people from Gen X aren't going into art; they are going into advertising, the Net, or movies,'' Finch says, his voice rising as he continues. ''If the art world is going to survive, it needs stars, real stars, not people like Matthew Barney. I mean, Matthew Barney's next project is all about an old woman's vagina, and he's been calling up a woman editor at Art in America and asking her to act as a vagina double.''
About the gallerist Jeffrey Deitsch, Finch says, ''Because he is unable to have physically intimate relationships, Deitsch uses his gallery as a voyeuristic sex emporium.''
About his slightly menacing appearances at the openings of shows by artists he had trashed, Finch says now, ''That was just Grand Guignol posturing, nothing serious. You set up the clay pigeons and then shoot them down.''
For someone who makes writing about the art world his entire professional focus, Finch seems almost eager to see this world implode and disappear. ''In five years, I don't think there will be a contemporary art world anymore. It will only exist on the Net,'' he announces. It is a little sad, really. You can't get around the fact that Chelsea feels like the end of something rather than the beginning.''
By promulgating salacious gossip about art stars in Coagula, ArtNet, and the New York Post'sPage Six, Finch may think that he is doing a public service for the art world--giving their lives the same level of personal scrutiny as celebrities, ironically elevating their status by denigrating them. But others disagree with his tactics.
''He is truly a mean-spirited individual who likes to make nice people unhappy,'' says critic Gary Indiana. ''To me, he is motivated by a very adolescent kind of substitution envy.'' Indiana describes a December Page Six item crafted by Finch that speculated on the artist Cindy Sherman's personal problems. ''The item ends with something like, 'Guess she's not going to have a very merry Christmas.' I mean, why do that to someone?''
''I am not a Pollyanna. I am a misanthrope,'' responds Finch, the outsider, who suddenly has been given the opportunity to carve a niche for himself in the mainstream. For now, he seems to be finding what would probably be better described as a grudging acceptance. Yet the outcome remains in doubt: ''It is kind of like when an artist's work first goes up at auction,'' muses dealer Mary Boone, who recalls Finch spitting on her at an opening (Finch remembers it a bit differently: ''I may have spritzed her unintentionally'' during an argument, he says) and whose artists have been subjected to frequent Finch attacks. ''You quickly find out what its real value is.''
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