Survey by Qualaroo

Excerpts from Don Celender's Autobiography Part 2

As part of the Don Celender exhibition, Surveyed, this is final extract we are publishing from Celender's autobiography. Entitled A Life in Art.

Don Celender, Duane Hanson and the winos.

Don Celender was good friends with sculpture Duane Hanson and the two both met socially and followed each other's careers from the late 1960's. Celender worked for most of his career at Macalaster College in Minneapolis and Hanson had been the college's very first fine arts major. Hanson was also signed to the gallery O.K. Harris which represented Celender.

Celender relays many anecdotes of his relationships with other artists in his unpublished autobiography My Life in Art, which he had been working on, at the time of his death, with his gallerists son and sometimes assistant Jesse Karp. The following extract is taken from the book and written, as always, in Celender's distinctive style.

The following November, I returned to New York for an opening and I took Duane up on his invitation for dinner. His studio was located at the cross section of Bleeker and the Bowery. In 1972, the Bowery's notoriety as a way station for New York's homeless had reached all the way to the Twin Cities. They streamed about the avenue, crowding it, even at night. They were basically harmless, of course, but I was unaccustomed to such a presence and it made me somewhat uneasy. Especially because my accommodations, the Statler Hilton in midtown Manhattan, were on the opposite side of the scale. On a miserable, cold, rainy night in November, my heavy London fog overcoat covering my three piece suit, I hailed a cab to begin my sojourn.

The cabby gave me a once over as I told him my destination. He could have easily pegged me for a banker or broker, given my attire.

“That's a rough neighbourhood, man” he said. “You don't want to go down there.”

“I'm afraid I have to,” I said clutching the bottle of wine I'd bought as a gift.

He shrugged. Off we went.

17 Bleeker Street was in the midst of a semi-industrial area, and quite dark. We pulled over in front of a huge freight elevator. Directly across the street were twenty winos at various levels of inebriation, huddled about homemade furnaces.

“Hey,” the driver said, “I'm not gonna leave until your friend knows you're here.” It was also a different breed of cab driver in 1972.

I rang the bell for the fifth floor. Duane's head popped out of a high window, and he said he was coming right down. The driver took this a sign of security and pulled out.

In the time it took Duane to come down five floors, those winos took an interest in me. Without caution or hesitation, several of them came to inspect the incongruous visitor. Some wobbled, some walked, until they had formed a loose semi-circle, pinning me to the freight elevator doors.

I raised my bottle of wine in as threatening a manner as I could manage. My eyes must have been two times wider than normal.

The door behind me slid open and out came Duane. He flung a handful of coins out onto the sidewalk, scattering the winos, each in a mad quest to retrieve his share. It seemed that you had to pay a toll to enter the building.

We greeted each other and went up. I met Wesla for the first time, and the Japanese assistant that O.K. Harris had provided as a live-in apprentice for Duane. Maja was now beginning to crawl, and much of Wesla's attention was given to that distraction.

At this point in his career, Duane was just beginning to get press. The New York Times, Art in America, a number of local magazines and papers were all taking an interest in him. He had a drawer with ten or twelve of these articles all predicting that he would be a major artist, and he showed them with obvious pride.

After dinner, I was able to watch Duane actually working on a sculpture. As he and his assistant bent to it, he explained how he constructed the face of the model: he would mold the front with breathing tubes and his assistant would mold the sides so they could get the whole face before the plastic resin set, giving the finished product an almost chillingly life-like appearance.

They were working on three sculptures at the time, one of them was a friend of mine, Ben Bianchi, who was a sculptor himself. The sculpture was proving a conundrum. Ben wore small glasses, but Duane wasn't so sure that he wanted to include them. Momentarily caught in a mire of his own perfectionism, Duane went back and forth for half an hour, the glasses going on and off. Finally he asked my opinion.

“He wears them most of the time, and its part of his personality,” I said simply. The glasses went on and stayed (years later, when Duane had a show at Macalaster, the college I worked at, the Bianchi sculpture was there, the glases untouched).

We talked ourselves out, sharing our art ideas and philosophies (he proved to be a great advocate of my own work, as I was of his). Finally, at about midnight, the time I had dreaded approached.

“Duane, you've got to call me a cab that will come right down there to the front door. Those winos are waiting for me.” There might have been a tremble in my voice when I said it, because he responded immediately. We called and called, but to no avail. No cab would come, a circumstance of the hour and the location.

They told me to exit and go several blocks, where I would hit Atlantic Avenue. That was my best chance of getting a cab. I hit the streets, not completely assured.

I was thankful to see that all the winos were either sleeping or wasted. They didn't even know I passed as I ran into the darkness as fast as I could, toward Atlantic Avenue. I got there and placed myself on the island in the middle, the most secure place visible, because on both sidewalks were more winos. They had turned fifty gallon oil drums into fire places, and they, in the manner of their brethren down the street, were eyeing my suspiciously.

There was not a car in sight, though there was ample movement in my direction from both sides. As the groups began to converge, I spied down quite a distance, a pair of shiny headlights reflecting in the rain. It was a race, the lights growing brighter and brighter, and the winos making their shuffling progress. Miraculously, when it seemed far too late, the headlights became a cab and screeched up to me, cutting off one group.

“What the hell are you doing out there, dressed like that? Get in fast.” The driver practically dragged me in.

I don't know if the homeless would have gotten violent with me, but if they had, I would have been a goner.

The driver got me back to the Hilton, just in time to receive a call from Duane inviting me for breakfast. I politely declined.

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Surveyed continues until Sunday 28 April.

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