New York

Don Celender

O. K. Harris Gallery

Don Celender is a spoofing quasi-Conceptualist who uses art-world figures and foibles as his subject—and target. Much of his “oeuvre” belongs to the Mail Art genre—the “documentary” branch, not the larger funk/junk division of the esthetic postal service. A recent prank involved correspondence with various categories of notables—corporation presidents, congressmen, etc.—proposing preposterous projects and publishing their replies along with his letters.

Other works include baseball cards with art-world faces superimposed on them, published results of an art-world “Olympics”—best-looking critic, richest artist, biggest gallery, etc., and a multiple-choice art history exam for museum directors, collectors and dealers (Which part of Watson’s anatomy was devoured by the shark in Copley’s Watson and the Shark? a) right leg; b) left leg; c) right arm; d) left arm; e) most of the above). Though clever and amusing, none of this ultimately amounts to much more than getting off a good in-joke.

Recently the thrust of his offensive seems to have altered; his two latest efforts delve deeper than many previous gestures, and the results, though no less funny, are far more telling. Museum Piece employs the mail medium to document the responses of some 70 museums to Celender’s request for photos of their loading docks—needed, ostensibly, for a research project he is conducting on museum architecture. Sounds routine enough, but it provoked a motley batch of baleful replies. Hardly any institution, it seems, is happy with its facilities; some, in fact, don’t have any at all. The Gardner Museum in Boston says that “the collection must remain as Mrs. Gardner left it, no additions or replacements. So there is no need for a loading dock.” The Palazzo Pitti doesn’t have one either. Many other European museums didn’t understand what “loading dock” meant, so their answers were appropriately bizarre.

The Corcoran’s is inadequate, built in the 1890s for “smaller vehicles (horse-drawn)”; now works of art are brought in “through any door or window that will accommodate them.” The Brooklyn Museum, victim of big-city paranoia, cannot furnish a photo “for security reasons.” The art museum at Princeton has to charge $20 for the photography, since it never expects to get another such request. The Whitney, however, claims that it receives many similar queries, and therefore will have a photo taken (stirring one’s curiosity as to the special fascination of that particular loading dock).

The Joslyn Museum has an inferior set-up, but suggests that Celender write the MFA in Boston—“Their loading dock is enough to make your mouth water!” And the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery recommends the dock at the Kimball Museum as “the most beautiful shipping and receiving area I have ever seen.” All this is reproduced along with photos of loading docks (and “non-docks”) as well as an occasional bill (American museums seem the most anxious to recoup the few bucks).

The second piece, Opinions of Working People Concerning the Arts, consists of questionnaires distributed to cooks, gas-station attendants, maids, waiters, bus drivers, construction workers, etc. by Celender and his students. The replies, honest and straightforward, demolish the professional “audience surveys” conducted at great expense by arts councils hoping to bolster their missionary services. Celender’s survey tells a different story: most people still hate modern art; their favorite buildings are the Capitol and the Cathedral in St. Paul (where the poll was taken); things they collect regularly range from coins, glass, yarn and tropical fish to crossword puzzle books, plants, old radios and beer mugs. Most say they like art “because it brings beauty to our lives,” but among those who go to museums the favorite exhibits are dinosaurs, fossils, stuffed animals and mummies. “Vulgar drawings,” nudes and abstract art are universal villains. Endless statistics could be culled, but the message is clear: the Age of Enlightenment has yet to dawn—on St. Paul, at least.

Both pieces are very funny; their humor derives from the ingenuous humanness of the responses, which Celender dead-pans with considerable panache. The simplicity of his questions and the subtlety of their implications indicate a maturing of the wit that has always informed his schemes, but which previously had a somewhat sophomoric edge. And his reports from the front reassure us that despite recent hoopla, life in Culturedom hasn’t changed much. The working folk still really don’t give a damn about art (Louis Harris, please note), and for all the graduate degrees in museology and clamor for funds to “improve facilities,” most museums are still schlepping stuff in and out through the grand entrance. It’s a comforting revelation.

––Nancy Foote