Walter Robinson remembers Charlie Finch, iconoclastic critic and ‘lifeblood’ of Artnet magazine for 15 years
Charlie Finch, who died earlier this week at 69 after a long illness, wrote for Artnet magazine shortly after its foundation, in 1996, until its last posts in 2012.
His early lyrics, titled Royal Flush in the gossip, were immediately understanding and caustic, continuing the kind of brash irreverence that had made his name with Coagulatedthe short-lived newsprint art magazine co-published with then-partner Mat Gleason (who now runs the Coagula brand as a web publication and, until recently, a Los Angeles gallery).
At the time, SoHo was the center of New York’s hip art, and Charlie was found there on Saturdays, handing out paper from a canvas shoulder bag. For a taste of his early style, notice the tone of his column from 1998, barely a quarter of a century back: concise insider details, no genie or flowers, and not even that means.
Later, of course, when Charlie dropped off more focused, review-like texts, he could fire up editorial flashes as explosive as Odin’s… or Loki’s. Many were reduced to ashes, if only for a moment. With Artnet Magazine’s own “Murderer’s Row” – Tony Fitzpatrick, Donald Kuspit, Jerry Saltz, Linda Yablonsky, Peter Schjeldahl – Charlie made the internet a place where artistic writing could come out of the shallows and go deep .
By the way, Charlie was one of those geniuses who ignored normal social niceties; he didn’t have a computer, for example, and submitted his texts on handwritten pages or dictated them over the phone (with me as his trusted typist). I would be very surprised if he had kept some sort of master file of his writings. (One of my many favorite memories: talking on the phone about an article in an article that just came out art forumhe said, “Wait, let me take it out of the trash.” “)
Although all of the contributors to Artnet Magazine did a great job for a modest salary, Charlie was truly our lifeblood, churning out two or three pieces each week, a steady stream of hard-hitting, funny, intelligent, and edgy commentary of exactly the kind art readers love to hate. Very many criticisms stimulated the younger artists or those who are not very prominent. Others, not so nice.
A word here about his fulminations: he could be almost cruel with his judgments, and be wrong, but he transposed the avant-garde’s basic demand for extreme freedom of opinion into everyday action, as s he challenged the art world to live up to his haloed myth. . And of course, he aimed most of his beards at mighty hits – the best of them wearing Charlie’s insults as badges of pride – while rescuing the old-fashioned and the newbies. His sensibility had no small quotient of the irrational, which is of course the vital spark of art. One of my favorite Finch texts, “Who is the worst artist?” from 2011, I love it not for its judgments (artists need no defense from me) as much as for its comedic prose timing and irreverent bravado.
“Robinson”, he mocked complaining, “you like everything!” I know I loved Charlie, even though I felt a price for letting him go in a baby-faced art industry. (I still doubt Mary Boone can tell him apart from him and me.)
When Artnet Magazine closed in 2012 Charlie was already ill, but when we worried about his health he insisted he was “strong as a horse and would outlive us all”. But more and more, he pushed everyone away, making his friendship almost impossible to maintain.
His disappearance is truly tragic, of an epic dimension in keeping with his life. Though I’m hard-hearted, I feel Charlie’s final gift, which is to make the Grim Reaper palpable and show the true costs of genius. Charlie is survived by his son, author Charles Finch, who I understand may be hosting a memorial this fall.
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