Interview: Sacha Waldron, Curator

After attending a talk at Arnolfini on the work of Don Celender and the importance of artist's books in the dissemination of works, I caught up with the curator of Surveyed Sacha Waldron. We discussed Celender, psychology and reading between the lines...

So, how did you discover the work of Don Celender?

I was on a curatorial placement here [at Arnolfini] for two years, from 2010 to 12, and one of the exhibitions that was just finishing when I arrived was The Cover Of A Book Is The Beginning of A Journey – an exhibition that had lots of things from the Arnolfini artist's book collection. It was all about books that had some sort of action or promotion of activity as an impetus. Two of the books were Don Celender’s books. Whilst I was re-cataloguing them we were quiet [at the gallery] so I could take some time to have a look through everything. I just came across those two projects and I remember asking if there were any more, and it turned there were.

And what is it that you particularly like about his work?

It was an instant thing; I just really really liked his work. There was a survey called ‘Destiny of a Name’ where he asked people with names that matched their profession – for example Mr Fish who was a fishmonger – if their choice of career had anything to do with the name they were born with. And the replies were so varied. Some people were like “no, of course not – you stupid idiot!” whereas others described how they chose their career, which was really interesting. And some people looked on it as an opportunity to really think about the question and decisions they had taken in life. It’s just the sheer variety of responses. And often what is most interesting is what is not said; the spaces in between. There are so many clues! Also the fact that it was so different to the art I had come across in my experience studying art history – a lot of the conceptual art from the 70s was very dry and political with little or no colour, and no sense of humour – and I really like Don’s sense of humour. I think it was one of the reasons he was ignored by the establishment or books about the conceptual art movement at that time. I think the fact that it was so hard to find information on him was what spurred me on to keep discovering more. 

What were Celender’s main objectives with the surveys?

I think there were no clear objectives to his projects. Apart things like from ‘What The Critics Said’, which is a collection of quotes. In general he just wanted to see what happened if he asked those questions. There was no expected outcome other than communication. 

From looking at the work, he seems really confident and we have already talked about how humourous Don was. How far do you think his choice of questions and the presentation of the survey’s themselves reveal the artist’s personality? 

I think they are really reflective of his own personality, and also of his personal experiences. I mean, he was showing in 1970s New York at a time when all the big art stars were coming to the fore – like Andy Warhol and his Factory – and there was an obsession with celebrity culture, so that had an impact. Also, there are autobiographical elements, for example, in the Military Officer’s survey. Don was actually in the military himself and ended up as the squad’s artist to get out of doing training because he hated the army. He started thinking a about the kind of art that was put in those institutions because of his own experience. 

How was he received by his contemporaries and the industry as a whole? He isn’t so well known today...

He did show very regularly and in New York during the 70s and 80s he would have definitely been known. He was written about. And he had 35 shows every year at his gallery OK Harris. He wrote to many artists and celebrities for the surveys, and we can see from the number of responses, that people were very aware of his work. It was just that he was never featured in any major shows along with well-known artists of that period.

Are there any artists working today who you would identify as working in the Celender legacy?

There is somebody at the moment who's actually got books on show at Arnolfini – Michael Crowe who I mentioned in the talk. I came across his book because he had reprinted sections of one of Don Celender's works. Like Celender he uses correspondence and potentials from alternative sources to create art. For example, in this book he uses Ed Ruscha's 'The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire' [see image below] and starts a correspondence with the museum asking them 'if the fire actually happened as shown in the painting, which paintings would have been lost in the fire?'. He's using a hypothetical scenario invented by another artist as the impetus. And I think that that approach is certainly in the legacy of Don Celender.

And finally – whilst I was looking around the exhibition I found myself wondering what challenges you as curator faced in presenting Celender’s work. In terms of filling a space it strays from displaying more conventional forms such as canvasses or sculptures because of its basis in written communication.

The work actually going in the space was fairly straight forward. It was getting hold of the surveys that was difficult and also the practical considerations like making copies to back the whole thing up, and considering the difference between American and British paper sizes with the affect that has on the presentation. You have to go through a lot of practical things! I wanted the copies displayed to be as close to the originals as possible. I also had consider that the space in the gallery is very white and how it would work on a visual level. And it was, of course, important to consider how much reading I was demanding from the viewer. I have to expect some parts to be skimmed over and wanted to make it so that the surveys could still stand as whole representations when dipped in and out of. I wanted to show a lot more, but for a visitor it would be too much to take in.


Surveyed, the two-part exhibition of the work of Don Celender is showing at Arnolfini, Bristol on 20th-28th April and at Crate, Margate from 15th June to 15th July.

Arnolfini, Bristol | Photo: 101Prints

The Los Angeles County Museum On Fire, oil on canvas  | Ed Ruscha, 1965-68

Don Celender | Photo: press/Arnolfini

Arnolfini March – May Brochure


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