John Waters, connoisseur of quirky art

Welcome to the wacky and wonderful world of art collected by John Waters, on view now at the Baltimore Museum of Art – works like Richard Tuttle’s “Peace and Time”: “I love this piece, because it basically looks like I had a niece that failed shop class in summer camp,” Waters said.

Richard Tuttle’s “Peace and Time,” just one of the whimsical or weird pieces from John Waters’ art collection that are now on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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Or this untitled sculpture by Paul Gabrielli: “What lunatic would have a box and put these kinds of locks on it that anybody could break in – a cardboard box? This is obviously a crazy person’s secret that I love!”

Paul Gabrielli’s “Untitled” (2012).

© Paul Gabrielli. Courtesy New Discretions/Invisible-Exports, New York.

And John Waters loves craziness. His 1972 cult classic “Pink Flamingos” features the late drag performer known as Divine in a contest over who is the filthiest person alive. So, it’s no surprise that the man who glories in nicknames like “Pope of Trash” and “Prince of Puke” collects art that is quirky and provocative.

Braver asked, “What has to speak to you?”

“It’s something that stops me in my tracks, surprises me,” he replied.

Baltimore filmmaker and art connoisseur John Waters. 

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Long before he ever made films, Waters’ parents brought him to his hometown museum, where he bought his first piece of art, a postcard of Joan Miró’s 1938 painting “Summer.” “I took it home and hung it up, and all the kids went, Oh, it’s ugly! And that’s when I started collecting art.”

It’s not just his art collection that has roots in Baltimore, but his films, including the 1988 classic “Hairspray,” which celebrates outsiders. Ricki Lake stars as Tracy Turnblad, a plus-size girl who finds love and acceptance on a TV dance show.

Braver asked, “Do you see all this interest in the arts as kind of one piece? Obviously it’s all creativity.”

“It’s all one piece of taste, it’s all the same thing what I do,” he said. “I’m trying to make you laugh at something that you were nervous about laughing about, and you’re walking on the edge of what you can make fun of and what you can get away with at the same time.”

The art is on display not only on the walls, but also the floors, like a work by the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. “Oh, look, now I’m stepping on my own thing – I love floor art!” he said, accidentally kicking it to the side. “Yeah, now we got to get it straight. You can’t hurt it though.”

Watch out for the art!

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These works are part of a larger group that Waters has bequeathed to the museum after his death. They usually deck his own walls, though when “Sunday Morning” visited his house in Baltimore in 2007, he focused on kitschier items, like an “ugly” baby doll. “This is my fake son, Bill. I ordered an ugly baby with bad hair.”

Meet Bill. 

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Propped up next to the doll was a photo of a real baby: “That’s an ugly picture of me, and I look like Bill there. I was a premature baby, and Bill’s a fake baby.”

“Bill” didn’t make it to this show, but there’s no mistaking who’s collected this work. Associate curator of contemporary art Leila Grothe said of the pieces on display, “The whole show really kind of shows John’s network.”

Braver asked, “How did the museum react when John Waters suddenly laid it on you that he wanted to present his collection to the museum after this death?”

“We were ecstatic!” said Grothe. “John is a legend of Baltimore, and his collection really reflects so much of what we think John is.”

And there’s something else that really reflects John Waters: One of his conditions for making a gift of his collection was that the museum attach his name, not to a gallery, but to a bathroom. “Yeah, I wanted the bathrooms just because I thought nobody’ s done that,” he said. “I thought it would be humorous, it would go along with everything in my career – and it did!”

The John Waters Restrooms, at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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Of course, given Waters’ work celebrating gender fluid characters, the bathrooms are gender-neutral. “I’m all for that because, so what? You’re just looking in the mirror while you’re washing your hands.  You can’t see in here at all – you can’t tell who’s in there, you know?” he said, pointing to the stalls. “Talk about private – you could live in there!”

The museum won’t put a price tag on the collection, but with Warhols, Lichtensteins and more, it’s said to be worth millions. Which didn’t impress John Waters’ dad, especially after John bought a Cy Twombly work:

Cy Twombly’s “Five Greek Poets and a Philosopher” (1978), from the collection of John Waters.

© Cy Twombly Foundation

“When I bought it, my father just hated it so much,” Waters said. And to poke fun at his son, Waters Sr. came up with this piece, as a joke:

John Waters Sr.’s “Crazy” (1994), from the collection of John Waters.

© John Waters’ dad

“Yeah, but he drew badly correctly, and that’s hard to do,” said Waters. “He didn’t realize that. I probably turned my dad into a good artist, who’s now hanging in a museum!”

Just one of the ways in which the life of John Waters has come full circle. Though it was once banned in several countries, “Pink Flamingos” was named to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2021.

And the young kid who first learned about art here is now on the board of this museum: “I’m now an insider,” Waters said. “It’s a final irony, really, because now I don’t want to be an outsider anymore.  Everybody wants to be that. I want to be an insider, because they have the power to change things.”

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Story produced by Ed Forgotson. Editor: Chad Cardin. 

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