A Catherine Opie portrait of Baltimore filmmaker John Waters hangs next to a piece of cardboard with the word “CRAZY” scrawled on it, attributed to Waters’ father, in a new exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The exhibition, “Coming Attractions: The John Waters Collection,” features 83 works of contemporary art from Waters’ personal collection. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art.

Writer and filmmaker John Waters is sometimes introduced as “the one and only,” but he’s the first to say that’s not accurate.

“My father would take difference to ‘one and only,’ because I’m a Junior,” he told Asma Naeem, the interim co-director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, after she introduced him that way this week.

The occasion was a press preview for “Coming Attractions: The John Waters Collection,” an exhibition of 83 works of contemporary art from Waters’ personal collection.

They were culled from a larger group of about 375 works that Waters, a Baltimore native and BMA trustee, has agreed to donate to the museum when he dies. The museum mounted the exhibit, which opens Sunday and runs until April 16, 2023, as a sign of “coming attractions.”

Baltimore filmmaker John Waters stands next between a portrait of himself by Catherine Opie and a piece of cardboard with the word “CRAZY” scrawled on it, attributed to Waters’ father. The pieces were among 83 works of contemporary art from Waters’ personal collection which were featured in a new exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Ed Gunts.

As if to prove Waters’ point about not being the one-and-only, one of the first works that viewers will see in the exhibit is a 1994 piece attributed to his father, John Waters Sr., entitled “C-R-A-Z-Y.”

It’s a framed rectangle of cardboard with the word CRAZY written on it in pencil, in shaky handwriting that goes downhill, and it’s right next to a Catherine Opie portrait of John Waters Jr., looking very dignified. Waters said his father wrote that one-word comment to show his displeasure after learning his son bought a series of lithographs he didn’t approve of, a portfolio by Cy Twombly entitled “Five Greek Poets and a Philosopher.”

“You bought that? They saw you coming, boy,” Waters Jr. recalls his father saying, in a ‘go-mobile’ narration that accompanies the exhibit. “They did,” he admits. “They did see me coming.”

Waters said he likes the way his father’s handwriting echoes the artist’s, which is notoriously illegible.

“What he didn’t understand is he wrote it exactly like Cy Twombly, my favorite artist,” Waters explained. “Really hard to do. He did understand it. He just didn’t realize it. And this proves it.”

It also makes a larger point, Waters says.

“I think it’s kind of unsophisticated to have this in the show because it is making fun of contemporary art,” he said in the narration. “But at the same time, it is my dad. And it just proved that I infected him with contemporary art, no matter what. And even though he thought he hated Cy Twombly, he didn’t, subconsciously.”

Is it “the least sophisticated piece in the show or the most sophisticated?” he asked this week. “My father…is hanging in the same building where Matisse is, all because of Cy Twombly.”

The infection spreads

A portfolio by Cy Twombly entitled “Five Greek Poets and a Philosopher” hangs in the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art.

Infecting people with contemporary art has been one of Waters favorite pastimes ever since he bought a Joan Miro print for $2 at the BMA gift shop when he was a boy and took it home and showed it to his friends.

“All the kids went, ‘Ah, that’s ugly. Why would you buy that?’” he recalls. But it showed him the power of art to get a reaction, and he hasn’t stopped since.

“I realized from the hostile reaction of my neighborhood playmates that art could provoke, shock, and cause trouble,” he said in 2020. “I became a collector for life.”

“Infecting people with contemporary art” could also be the title of the current exhibit at the BMA.

Though he’s perhaps best known for films such as Hairspray and Pink Flamingos, bestsellers such as Role Models and Carsick, and nicknames such as “The Pope of Trash” and “The Prince of Puke,” Waters, 76, is also a visual artist and noted art collector. He was the subject of a retrospective entitled “John Waters: Indecent Exposure” at the BMA and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio in 2018 and 2019. He has two works on view in the inaugural show at the Rubell Museum that opened in Washington, D. C. last month, “Beverly Hills John” and “Shoulda!”

Waters’ bequest to the BMA includes 288 works by 125 artists other than himself, working in a variety of art forms. In addition to the Twombly series that infuriated his father, the collection includes works by Cindy Sherman; Andy Warhol; Diane Arbus; Roy Lichtenstein; Thomas Demand; Nan Goldin; Richard Prince; and Christopher Wool, among others.

Waters also donated 87 prints, sculptures, mixed-media and video pieces that he created. His gift will make the BMA the greatest single repository of his work and will enable it to provide, in perpetuity, a comprehensive view of his vision and approach to art.

In return, the museum board said it would name restrooms and a rotunda after him. That wasn’t a putdown. Known for his raunchy humor and offbeat way of thinking, Waters specifically asked to have his name on the restrooms, the first at the BMA that are “all gender.”

Christened last fall with a “first pee” by trans artist and activist Elizabeth Coffey, The John Waters Restrooms are right next to The Nancy Dorman and Stanley Mazaroff Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, where Coming Attractions is on view. The museum has also agreed to prominently display five works from the collection, including one by Waters, at all times.

An insider’s look

Unlike “Indecent Exposure,” “Coming Attractions” doesn’t include works by Waters. Instead, it’s intended to provide an insider’s look at his tastes in contemporary art, and how he lives with art, by focusing on works by others that he has collected and displayed at his homes in Baltimore, New York, and San Francisco.

The guest curators are Opie and artist Jack Pierson, both of whom have been friends with Waters for years and are represented in his collection. The exhibit is organized by Leila Grothe, the museum’s Associate Curator of Contemporary Art.

Among the featured works are paintings, sculptures, photographs, and prints by Arbus; Goldin; Sherman; Warhol; Wool; Mike Kelley, Gary Simmons and others.

According to the curators, the selected works capture elements that are important to Waters’ collecting vision, including a commitment to daring artists and works that exude confidence, wit and humor. They say it will help expand the museum’s holdings related to queer identity and freedom of expression.

“They represent a type of contemporary art that the BMA actually just doesn’t really have,” Grothe said.

Waters’ collection is a reflection of his personality and imagination, Opie and Pierson said in a statement.

“Our hope is to share with audiences another aspect of John’s creative vision by offering a glimpse into what he values: artists who are unafraid to take risks, who do not compromise, and who create their art on the margins.”

‘Touchstone’ works

The exhibit highlights the deep and longstanding relationships that Waters has established with artists and the ways in which those personal connections defined his collecting.

The curators also included a group of “touchstone” works that represent Waters’ relationships with people in the art and film worlds, such as Brigid Berlin; Colin de Land; Cookie Mueller; and Warhol, as well as Baltimore artists such as the late Barry Holniker.

One of the touchstones is a painting by Betsy the Chimpanzee, who lived and painted at the Baltimore Zoo, now the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, in the 1950s. Betsy’s artistic career came to an end when museum director Arthur Watson paired her with Spunky the Monkey, who fell on her one day and broke her leg, sending her into shock and ultimately leading to her death.

This is the first time the BMA, with more than 95,000 works in its collection, has displayed a work by a non-human. There’s no particular fanfare about the way it’s shown; it hangs right on the wall with all the other ‘touchstones.”

Recurring themes

Opie said she and Pierson organized the exhibit in part by identifying recurring themes in Waters’ collection that show the kinds of work that catches his eye.

Pierson said categories they identified include moments of domesticity, disaster “both inside and outside the house,” and art that has a “head scratching” quality that makes one reconsider what came before.

“I was naming it WTF, like, what’s this?” he said. “That’s the quality that destroys the thing that comes before it and makes a whole new possibility for art.”

Waters is a big fan of Tromp l’oeil, art that fools the eye by creating highly realistic optical illusions, he said. “It fakes you out. It makes you believe it’s real” when it isn’t.

The curators were also amazed by how much the works in the three different residences shared a certain similarity and compatibility, Opie said.

“The consistency of the vision of all three residences was absolutely really, really unique,” she said.

Waters is also “that rare collector” who displays every piece of art that he owns, rather than keeping some of it in storage, Pierson said.

“He doesn’t have one piece that’s not on the wall,” he said. “So it was important for this show to be dense.”


Tadashi Kawamata’s piece “Destruction” hangs in the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art.

Waters said at the preview that he thinks of his art works as “roommates” he wanted to live with.

Part of the fun of the exhibit for him, he said, was seeing his roommates from different residences, who had never ‘met’ before, now in the same space for the first time, in some cases right next to each other. He said he likes the way some of them go together, especially the side-by-side works by Richard Tuttle and Vincent Fecteau.

Waters says he tends to gravitate toward art that looks like an accident or a mistake, works that make the observer do a double-take. He describes his collection as “delightful for all the wrong reasons.” To him, “art is messing up what came before in a way that delights, infuriates, baffles, and forces you to rethink the ludicrous possibility of a masterpiece,” he said.

One such work is “Looking at Yo,” a mirror that artist Tony Matelli intentionally made to look as if it’s always dirty and then made it impossible to clean. “This is the one that my housekeeper really hates” because “it looks like she didn’t ever do her job,” Waters said in the go-mobile narration. “It’s like, the mirror is filthy. Can’t you see that?”

There’s a pile of wood scraps that looks as if a handyman finished a carpentry project and forgot to clean up – “another enemy of cleaning people,” Waters said.

Another work, “Gebrauchsbild” by Karin Sander, is covered with mold that was potentially so toxic the art dealer wouldn’t bring it in the gallery. “Technically, it could wreck your house, kill you, and it was expensive,” Waters said. “All three things made it perfect for what contemporary art should be.” The work has since been treated, he added.

Ugliness ‘is very important’

A photography by Peter Fischli and David Weiss captures a Federal Express plane without any windows. Photo by Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

He likes images and objects that many would final banal and unexceptional, including a black and white photo of Wool’s studio, which he calls “the ugliest piece in the whole show,” and a Mike Kelley collage “that looks like the most untalented child did it in kindergarten, in a jail.”

Ugliness “is very important in art,” he said. “I’d much rather buy an ugly painting than a beautiful one.”

As someone who flies frequently and spends hours in airports, Waters said, he was drawn to a large photo of a Federal Express plane without any windows, the work of Peter Fischli and David Weiss. He said it reminds him of the utterly unremarkable views he sees every time he boards a plane, and yet the artists turned it into art.

“There’s no reason that picture is that big,” he said. “There’s no reason anybody took it. There’s no reason anybody bought it. It’s like the third reject from a barber shop calendar. That’s why I loved it… [The artist] makes you notice it. That’s the whole point.

“There’s a whole thing with photographers,” Opie said. “From a photographer’s standpoint, we love banality. We love images where things aren’t really happening, but you think that something’s happening. There’s a huge history of banality within photography. This is one of my favorites.”

The banality of the photo makes the viewer think about other things, such as why the plane doesn’t have any windows, and that can lead to revelations that are worth pondering, Waters said.

“The airplane doesn’t have windows because packages don’t have friends,” he said. “There’s nobody to wave to.”

Trompe l’oeil works include Paul Gabrielli’s fake smoke alarm, Richard Baker’s faux coat hook, and Doug Padgett’s fake electric socket and light switch, placed exactly where one would find them in a house. Baker’s faux “Pills” appear to have come right out of the medicine cabinet. George Stoll, Mink Stole’s brother, designed a fake toilet paper holder and roll of what looks to be toilet paper, except it’s green chiffon and the security guards won’t let anyone near it. Waters said he keeps it in his New York living room and had to get permission from the super at his condo to install it in a non-bathroom.

Waters also has fun with art about celebrities, including Gary Hume’s screenprint of Michael Jackson looking through a peephole and Eric Luken’s silkscreen panels of JonBonet Ramsey as a child model. One of the works was a birthday present from Richard Serra, and Betsy’s “monkey masterpiece” was a birthday gift from the zoo.

Baltimore celebrities are depicted, too, such as Holniker’s photo of Miss Pat, who ran the Quickee Offset printing business at Charles and 25th streets for 30 years.

“She was the ultimate hairhopper,” Waters said. “At Christmas she would have her hair with all Christmas balls in it. She was a female, female impersonator.”

Inspiration for others

Because of the way it’s organized – it was intended to be a preview, not all-encompassing — the exhibit leaves out a number of works that delight guests to Waters’ homes, including his collection of fake food and his vintage movie posters. They can presumably be shown another time.

What comes through is a celebration of Waters’ keen eye for collecting; his sense of humor and daring; his gratitude to the BMA for igniting his interest in art, and his desire to pay it forward.

Waters said when he made his donation that the BMA sparked his creativity when he was growing up. Now, he said, “I hope I can do the same thing for the next weird little kid that wants to take a picture that nobody likes.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

One reply on “John Waters at the BMA: ‘Infecting’ people with contemporary art for seven decades”

  1. I saw the show last night at the BMA and thought “this is sooooo John Waters”. I was stunned however by a picture of a child with a visible penis and an adult hand on the right side of his waist coming in from the back. It’s called “Anointed, ND” by artist McCarty. We could call it weird, according to John Waters taste, and we could call it child porn, which may be found in artistic works. I believe it is a piece of art unbecoming of all of us and hope the museum takes it down.

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