Why John Waters is giving his all to the Baltimore Museum of Art

The director John Waters has been collecting contemporary art for decades, and he has built up a hoard full of quite idiosyncratic works. Take, for example, Karine Sanderit is Gebrauchsbild (2010). The artist did nothing to the canvas. She was never on the same continent as the canvas. She just told her dealer, Frederic Petzel, to leave it in the garden of his Hamptons home for a summer. Eventually, the canvas developed a green-black mold, and that’s the job. Petzel feared the mold would poison him, so he refused to bring it home. Waters bought it immediately.

“(A) is beautiful to me. Looks like a Robert Ryman painting. And (b) it can kill you; it can ruin your house. He could disappear. And his Dear,“he said Wednesday, standing at the Baltimore Museum of Art, staring at the rotting fabric he bought from a posh gallery for big bucks.

“There is everything I like in contemporary art. I think art for the people is a terrible idea—I As elitism,” he continued. “It’s a secret language. You have to dress a certain way; you have to learn a language; you have to be able to see. It’s a magic trick. And once you can, every day you come home, nothing is the same.

The work, along with 371 others, was donated to the institution by the legendary 76-year-old filmmaker, author, performer, artist and collector in 2020. It is his hometown museum. Although he has homes in New York and San Francisco and summers in Provincetown, Waters never left Baltimore; if he is, as the nickname says, the pope of the basket, it is his Vatican City. Walking with him on a weekday in the historic port city was surreal. Waters, instantly recognizable to everyone with his pencil-thin mustache and mischievous smile, speaks in a low baritone, with that rare, slightly southern real Maryland accent despite coming from a state in the Union. Waters is probably the most iconic Baltimorean the city has produced since Edgar Allan Poe, and he’s treated like a deity there, even as his films deal in smut and scatalog. The hip new hotel I was staying at, Ulysses, has decor deeply influenced by the John Waters–Charm City aesthetic exhibited in movies like crybaby and Hairspray.

And if it’s his Vatican City, that makes the Baltimore Museum of Art something akin to Waters’ Sistine Chapel. It was there, brought by his parents, that he made his first purchase of art: a poster of a work by Joan Miró. In 2018, the museum gave him a retrospective, and now there’s another one of sorts. On Sunday, a new show, “Coming Attractions: The John Waters Collection,” opens to the public, giving those who have never been invited to his Christmas party a chance to see the horde of unmistakably John Waters treasures. Of the hundreds of works, 90 were selected and curated by the artists Jack Pierson and Catherine Opie at Waters’ request. He had no idea how they would be settled until he walked in on Tuesday.

“I’ve always loved the museum in Baltimore, it’s one of the first places that ever honored me, long before it was sure to love me,” Waters says. “I have always stayed in Baltimore. My career wouldn’t have gone so well if I had left.

I asked how having his private collection in the hands of a public institution had furthered his juice. He said he particularly wanted the difficult works to enrage and torment ordinary Baltimore residents who come to the museum to see the Matisses. He leaned over to show me Mike Kelley’s child substitute (1995), a rough collage of cut-out cats glued to paper.

“He’s my favorite Mike Kelley because he then infuriates people,” Waters said.

“That’s very Mike Kelley,” I said.

“He is. It’s pitiful, and he made up pitiful,” Waters replied. “But pitiful is very important. A lot of this art is pitiful. It’s a movement of pitiful.

We came across a framed piece of lined paper on which Cy Twombly had written her address. When an artist takes a note for logistical purposes, it is usually not a work of art. Then again, some of the late artist’s works are just words he wrote on the canvas, and his improvised business card certainly looked like a Twombly.

“That I to like,says Waters. “And I always said I would never show it because I met him and we were hanging out and I said, ‘Can I…? That’s how he wrote me his address.

To drive the point home, there’s a piece of Twombly around the corner, Five Greek poets and a philosopher, it’s just text, just the names of the poets and the philosopher. John Waters Sr. was so angry that his son spent his hard-earned movie money on the job that he made his own Twombly to show how anyone could do it, scribbling “Crazy” in an eerily similar style to that of the artist, then signing it “Cy W.” It is now part of the BMA’s collection, suspended between works by Opie and Pierson.

Waters entered the art world as a collector, having grown up frequenting galleries at New York University and reading about exhibits at The Voice of the village when he was in Baltimore. He often walked around with Brenda Richardson, the longtime BMA curator, and found it easy to access primo works because dealers loved his films so much. Mary Boone gave him a big discount just because the painting was entering his collection. He befriended the biggest drug dealer in the world, Larry Gagosian, and they stay close – when Gagosian hosted a dinner party for Andreas Gursky in May, he reserved the seat next to him for Waters.

“He hired me to write the script for the Elizabeth Taylor Warhol show, and my business would have driven collectors so crazy,” Waters says. “He printed them on the wall, which I said. He was awesome. He didn’t censor anything. I haven’t bought anything from Larry in a while – by the time they get to his place I can’t afford anything.

It was much harder for galleries to take him seriously as an artist. He didn’t have the bona fides of an art school education and an MFA from Yale, and could be seen as a Tinseltown intruder slumming in SoHo with the art maniacs. That changed after speaking with one of the dealers he bought from, American Fine Arts founder Colin de Land.

“Colin was my first dealer – I would never have made it in the art world without Colin, because there’s nothing people hate more in the art world than someone who comes from the show business,” Waters says. “There is nothing more hated. Colin, he legitimized me. He said to me: ‘Do you ever paint?’ And I said, ‘Well, I have all these little pictures.’ He said, ‘What do you mean by these little pictures?’ Because I had some, but I hadn’t shown them to anyone. So he came down and saw them, and he gave me a show.

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