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|beware of the dog
by Rupert Goldsworthy
Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula, edited by Tom Patchett, Smart Art Press, Santa Monica, 1998, $19.95.
Five years of homophobia, misogyny, near-libel, bad jargon, MUFFIE (middle-aged urban failure) artist bitterness and we have to pay $19.95 for a book of collected Coagula?
So why would a sissy art dealer -- that is to say, me -- want to review this book? After spending 10 years working for dishonest, power-crazed trust-fund-brat artists and dealers in the aging, hegemonic SoHo art scene, even a nice guy such as myself would get a vicarious thrill from the public trashing handed out here to various ex-bosses and other snots I once answered phones to and opened doors for.
Coagula began letting the rest of us in on its chauvinistic insider-outsider view of the art world in 1994, a little late to catch the art-market crash of 1990 but timely enough to scourge a new breed of power-brokers who exhibited none of the class of the 1960s Leo-and-Ileana generation.
Coagula's unstifled voice quickly cut through the public-angel façade of artists, dealers and curators to expose the monster lurking backstage. Like Punk Rock in the '70s, it was a very necessary bromide for the backslapping pretensions of the clean little art world.
It was (and is) like waiting for the plague to strike. Everybody from the gallery front-desk attendant to the museum chief feared the issue where they too would be outed or insulted. Like a terrier on a trouser leg, Coagula would not let go its bite! Could it be bought off with ads?
Organized by West Coast dealer and collector Tom Patchett, Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula is divided into five sections that roughly replicate the newspaper's format. Insider gossip from the New York art world is found in the "New York Letterbomb," written by Janet Preston, the pen-name of art-loving Yale grad and former Gary Hart political operative Charlie Finch (who also writes the "Royal Flush" column in this magazine). "L.A. Scene" presents a similar brew from the West Coast, written by Coagula founder and publisher Mat Gleason. Rounding out the mix are Readers' Polls (i.e., "the most obnoxious people in the art world"), serious reviews and less-serious interviews, and finally an interview with Gleason exploring his agenda. The book appeals primarily to a limited audience, familiar not just with contemporary art but the "scene" as well.
Still, Coagula has had more than its share of great, funny and informative moments. One section, "The Gagosiac Era: A Larrody," covers five years of superdealer Larry Gagosian's tempestuous rise and ongoing struggles with banks, powerbrokers, competing dealers, Peter Halley and Philip Taaffe. The Larrody reads like a banking nightmare of alliances trashed and megalomania rampant, its protagonist a character larger than life, worthy of Harold Robbins.
Then there are some classic selections of Coagula's ad hominem wit. In reference to dealer Mary Boone: "Hey Mary, do you think Go-Go is panting after Roni Horn or that Arne Glim-Glam is afraid of a dealer who can't even hold onto Sherrie Levine?!?" Another selection refers to "Rosalind Krauss' post-menopausal bleatings in Artforum."
But the cutting accuracy of a drive-by put-down like "hack schmoozer Rirkrit Tiravanija" can then veer off to the vitriol of "human douchebag Julian Schnabel." It's like sitting on a barstool next to an amusingly bitter and occasionally violent drunk. Finch is clearly the art world's crudest "take no prisoners" shock jock, and although a loose cannon can be funny, it can also get ugly amidst the volleys of anti-gay slurs, covert racism and pure envy.
And the Gallegiate polls, charts and top tens are always sharp, even if my favorite -- Coagula's 1995 guide to gallery bathrooms in L.A. -- didn't make it into the book. Instead, there's "The Most Overrated Artists of the 20th Century" (Schnabel, Haring, O'Keeffe) and "You Know You're an Art World Loser When..." (collectors: "when nobody will do your portrait"; curators: "when you name a show Pure Beauty"). The targets are usually the same -- Schnabel, Gagosian, David Ross, Jeff Koons, Jeffrey Deitch -- rich straight white guys, for whom the vitriolic frenzy seems to wax and wane over time.
The more serious examples of art reportage -- on performance artists like Ron Athey, Bob Flanagan and Karen Finley, and writer Charles Bukowski, are well done but less powerful.
The final interview with Gleason tells of his development from censored college newspaper editor to financially on-the-edge art magazine editor and publisher, as well as his move from L.A.'s punk music scene to its art scene. Interestingly, though he only met New York editor Charlie Finch two years after their collaboration had begun, their take on the art scene seems remarkably similar.
With Most Art Sucks, the masks are finally off and we can see the perpetrators of a small bi-monthly paper that has strangely shaken the art world for the past five years. It can be cruel, but it can be funny. One wonders what will happen now that Gleason and Finch have become so well known that they're now powers in their own right.
Perhaps more than anything, Most Art Sucks documents a becalmed '90s, in which there has been no new art "movement" but rather a prurient, deconstructivist fascination with the art world's corridors of power.
RUPERT GOLDSWORTHY is a British art gallerist located in Chelsea.
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