Premature Examination: a Preview of John Waters’ ‘Coming Attractions’ at the BMA

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Art AND: Giulia Livi

Last year, John Waters gave his hometown some of the art world’s best news in recent memory: he’s leaving 372 artworks from his decades-spanning private collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art. But fans won’t have to wait for the Pope of Trash’s sede vacante to enjoy some of these gems.

In Coming Attractions: The John Waters Collection—which opens Sunday in the BMA’s Nancy Dorman and Stanley Mazaroff Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographsroughly 90 works from the singularly subversive bequest are on view for your perusal until April 16. The exhibition includes pieces by Cy Twombly, Mike Kelley, Nan Goldin, Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus, and Waters’ own father.

The exhibition is guest-curated by internationally renowned queer artist Jack Pierson and photographer Catherine Opie (who I, personally, first discovered after she was immortalized in Le Tigre’s feminist punk anthem Hot Topic!). It’s a testament to both their curatorial chops and friendships with Waters himself that they’ve put together a show that feels cohesive, intimate, smart, and unrepentantly funny.


One of the show's salon-style hangs, featuring art and ephemera from Sturtevant, Eric Doeringer, Cy Twombly, Tony Oursler, Eric Luken, Gary Lee Boas, Brigid Berlin, and a 1969 announcement card for portfolio prints of Warhol's Campell's Soup Cans
Art is messing up what came before in a way that delights, that infuriates, baffles, and forces you to rethink the ludicrous possibility of a masterpiece.
John Waters

Waters is refreshingly one of the rare collectors, Pierson noted at the press preview, who actually lives with all the art he acquires, when way too many of the world’s priceless-but-pricey cultural treasures are often squirreled-away to tax-free storage units in global “freeports” from Luxembourg to Delaware. Waters refers to the pieces in his collection as his “roommates,” and there’s an appropriate tension between domesticity and wildness in the selections Opie and Pierson have wrangled from the walls (and floors) of his three homes in San Francisco, New York, and Baltimore.  

We had the privilege of an intimate tour of the exhibition from Waters and the curators ahead of the opening, hearing personal anecdotes, insights, and interpretations of many of the works on display, as well as the unexpected origin of their future.


L-R: Richard Prince, Fischli & Weiss, photo and sculpture
Catherine Opie and John Waters with her portrait of the artist
Untitled papier-mâché and paint sculpture by Vincent Fecteau (2008) with Cy Twombly's 1978 lithograph series "Five Greek Poets and Philosopher"
The exhibition publication "John at Home," featuring an interview between the curators and John Waters in his Baltimore home, with a photo of Paul Gabrielli's "Untitled" (2012) as the work on loan is usually displayed in Waters' house.

Waters spoke about his abiding relationship with former BMA board president Clair Segal, as well as his respect for Brenda Richardson, the former contemporary curator who first brought Warhol’s work to the museum. Waters said the conversation about leaving his impressive collection to the BMA arose with former museum Director “Chris Bedford, who I was in a big fight with about the Warhol thing…” Waters recounted, in reference to the controversial (and thankfully, last-minute nixed) decision to auction off holdings from the BMA’s permanent collection, “and at the end I asked ‘Oh yeah, by the way, can I leave you my collection?’” According to Waters,  “Chris didn’t miss a beat. He said, ‘Yes’ and I said, ‘Will you name a bathroom after me?’ …and he made that happen, too. So when you use it today, think of both of us.” 

Waters’ sterling wit aside, his genuine appreciation of weird art—and those who make it—is always nice to be reminded of. Waters thanked the artists in his collection, so many of whom he developed personal relationships with, working “at the extremes of the art world I so love. It’s a secret language, a secret way of seeing things.” Waters intimated that art can even be a secret way to dress, as he gestured to his trompe-l’œil rain-splattered blazer, grease tie-dyed shirt, and deconstructed shoes.

“I’m trying to dress what art should be,” says Waters. “Art is messing up what came before in a way that delights, that infuriates, baffles, and forces you to rethink the ludicrous possibility of a masterpiece.”


Catherine Opie, "John," 2013, printed 2022 (Image courtesy of the BMA)
Untitled works by Christopher Wool (L) and Paul Gabrielli (sculpture) with Tony Matelli's "Yo," an acid-etched mirror that apparently drives Waters' housekeeper crazy.
John Waters (Sr.), "C-R-A-Z-Y," 1991
Arnold Odermatt. "Ennetmoos," 1978 (top L), Christopher Wool, "Untitled (West Texas)," 2008, and Richard Serra, "Birthday,"1996

Our tour of the galleries began with a stop at “C-R-A-Z-Y,” scribbled by John Waters’ father as a joke after the junior Waters purchased the Cy Twombly lithographs displayed across the aisle. It’s a good introduction to the show, which celebrates equally the absurd and personal aspects of collecting. It’s also, as Waters said, “either the most or least sophisticated piece in the show.” Apparently, he showed this to Cy Twombly, who was impressed with how accurately it replicated his handwriting. 

Evident in Waters’ collection is an interest in terror, disaster, or tragedy disrupting the domestic or familiar. There are highway accidents captured by Swiss photographer Arnold Odermatt, a sculpture of a cracked cabinet by Paul Gabrielli (which Waters wryly told us hangs in his earthquake-prone San Francisco digs), and a Christopher Wool photo of a disgusting bathroom. Waters affectionately referred to the latter as the “ugliest piece I own and that is really a compliment!” Waters’ singular sense of humor is contagious. He proudly showed us a birthday gift from Richard Serra, an ink painting that evokes two of Serra’s monumental sculptures humping.

“Is it a glory hole or not?” Waters asked rhetorically, gesturing to a silkscreen of Michael Jackson by Gary Hume, “That would be frightening! Michael Jackson is scary to me. I’ve been in sex clubs with glory holes… and imagine looking down and seeing this! That would be a night.”


John Waters with Gary Hume's 2002 screenprint "Michael" and untitled silver gelatin prints by Larry Clark from 1990
Paul Gabrielli, "Untitled," 2015
Fischli & Weiss and David Weiss, "Airport-Federal Express," 1989

Perhaps less overtly scandalous, but just as interesting, is Waters’ penchant for artwork that’s boring, “unskilled”, or banal. He joked that when he hears people exclaim “my kid could do that!” he responds, “Well they didn’t, stupid! You should’ve had them do it!” One of Waters’ favorite pieces is a 1995 collage by Mike Kelley, which almost-aggressively resists looking like an artwork. Another highlight is a “painting” by Karin Sander that the artist never touched—she simply sent her gallerist long-distance instructions to leave a primed canvas outside in the elements. The resulting composition is a constellation of mold-and-mildew so toxic it had to be specially treated before it could be displayed indoors. A Tom Sachs artwork comprising duct tape wrapped around a plywood rectangle is quite possibly the most boring Tom Sachs I’ve ever seen.

“There’s no reason that this picture should be this big,” Waters gestured to his 47.24″ x 70.86″ photograph by Fischli & Weiss. “There’s no reason anyone should’ve taken it. There’s no reason anyone should’ve bought it!” It’s an image of the mundane that’s oddly captivating—an airport tarmac blandscape one might not even notice looking out a terminal window. Opie, however, noted that “As photographers we love banality,” pointing out the dated logos and vehicles, “It can create a register of the times we’re living in in different ways.”


Mike Kelley, "Child Substitute,"1995
Karin Sander, "Gebrauchsbild," 2010
Waters with Kathe Burkhart's "Slit: From the Liz Taylor Series (Ash Wednesday)," 1992, and Tom Sachs, "What," 1995
Installation view of salon-hung photos and works on paper, including pieces by Barry Holniker, Diane Arbus, Elizabeth Peyton, Nan Goldin, Richard Baker, Karlheinz Weinberger, Stephen Tennant, David Armstrong, Cecil Beaton, and a 1955 painting by Betsy the Chimpanzee from the Baltimore Zoo
Barry Holniker, "Miss Pat," c. 1985

But arguably the highlight of the tour was the narrow hallway-like space where two arrangements of smaller works are hung salon-style—a nod to the jam-packed aesthetic of Waters’ homes and the personal narratives attached to many of these intimately-scaled pieces. There are portraits of longtime Dreamlander friend and collaborator Cookie Mueller from photographers Nan Goldin and Cecil Beaton, respectively. There’s a painting by Betsy, a quasi-famous, artistically inclined chimpanzee from the Baltimore Zoo (the present-day Maryland Zoo) harmonizing with a pen-and-ink portrait of male sex workers by Stephen Tennant. Waters has a story for most of these: “I wrote a whole chapter in my book about how to collect monkey art!”

He told us about his friendship with Warhol “Superstar” Brigid Berlin, who painted using her breasts, used to stage off-Broadway “plays” consisting of her calling up friends and family to pick fights in front of unsuspecting live audiences, and who he introduced to Patty Hearst—their fathers were apparently work acquaintances who always told their respective daughters cautionary tales about the other. There’s a knockoff Damien Hirst, purchased for $10 from a street vendor outside Gagosian, and a portrait of “Miss Pat” by photographer Barry Holniker from 1985.

I find myself thinking most about that photograph, and what it means for Baltimore’s coming inheritance. The sitter ran a print shop on 25th street, just blocks from the museum. Waters and his friends were frequent patrons—printing out flyers for screenings and happenings back in the day. Miss Pat, who Waters described as “a female female impersonator” was known for her outrageous hairdos, sometimes incorporating Christmas lights. She represents the kind of unbridled weirdness we love about this city. For all the internationally known musicians, artists, or filmmakers Baltimore has churned out against all odds, there’s at least one Miss Pat, diligently printing out the visuals for whatever crazy mischief they’re getting up to. Her forthcoming inclusion in the permanent collection of the BMA might be what I value most about John Waters’ generous donation and legacy. He’s a master storyteller, from cinema and memoirs to collecting and conversation. Importantly, he’s always given credit to his supporting cast and crew, unexpected muses, and neighbors. There’s something so satisfying knowing the “torqued ellipses” of her coiffure will live on for posterity alongside works by the likes of Richard Serra. It’s one of the best gifts John Waters could leave us.


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