A NIGHT WITH JOHN WATERS: Artist, Art Collector, and Filmmaker

If you’ve never experienced the giddiness of laughing out loud in utter and ecstatic horror and disbelief at the pure hilarity that is a John Waters movie, you really haven’t lived. The man is a sultan of comedy. Mr. Waters is nothing if not interesting.

On April 23, “This Filthy World” John Waters’ one-man show, is coming to The Rococo Theatre here in Lincoln, Nebraska, and will be presented by the Ross Media Arts Center and Friends of the Ross. As a longtime John Waters fan, I’ve been asked to create a very special painting to welcome him to Nebraska. I’m in the studio as I write working on it. I’m calling it, “Dreamlanders: An Artist for the Artists…Welcome John Waters.” I’m not going to divulge any details about the progress of the work so as not to spoil the surprise, but you can (and I hope you will!) see it on April 23rd at the Mary Reipma Ross Media Arts Center.

What many don’t know about John Waters is in addition to making colorful, campy films that joyfully, and entirely without malice, break every taboo in the book, he’s also an accomplished visual artist and lifelong art collector. And since I’m going to be devoting a great deal of space on this blog to the art and science of art collecting, I thought it would be fun to kick it all off by delving into Waters’ world and taking a look at his collection and his general feelings about contemporary art.

The first piece Waters collected was a $1 Miro print he bought at the Baltimore Museum of Art gift shop when he was 8. His friends hated it, which delighted Waters, who says he wasn’t looking for compliments, but only bought it because he liked it. Happily, that one small print and the disdain it evoked from his friends made young Waters realize that “art could be yet another thing I could use against society.” In high school, a friend gave him a silver Jackie Kennedy print by Andy Warhol, and he ended up with a couple of Lichtensteins during that period as well.

Contemporary art – in particular, Pop art – had a huge influence on him from the start, which is plain to see when you watch his movies. “Contemporary art’s job is to wreck whatever came before it,” Waters says, and notes that the kind of art he likes is the kind that initially angers you but ultimately lets you see things in a different way – if you’re willing to. “You have to start going to galleries, you have to read, you have to learn about art history. But once you see it, you have that power – and it is power – forever.”

Waters references one of his own art pieces, “Contemporary Art Hates You…And Your Family Too,” in an interview with Frieze Magazine. “If you have ‘contempt before investigation,’” he says, “then it does hate you and you are stupid. I like that idea: you are stupid, because you won’t think to look in a different way. Seeing and looking are different. Real life is seeing and art is looking. If you’re successful, it’s a magic trick: you take one thing, and you put it here, and it changes in one second, and then you can never look at that thing again the same way. That’s what art is to me.”

Indeed, there are some things that you will never look at the same again after watching any of John Waters’ movies, which are the ultimate tests of whether you suffer from the blight of ‘contempt before investigation.’

Waters stopped collecting art for a long time after high school, but then started back up again in the late 1980s, when he began making a little money.
Waters is a huge Cy Twombly fan and collector. He owns “Letter of Resignation XXXI,” and on his nightstand, he keeps his hardcopy of Letter of Resignation, a bound collection of all 38 drawings in the series and one of nearly 80 books he has on Twombly and his work.

Waters was recently enchanted by a very special piece by Karin Sander, whose artwork is featured in his collection. The piece consisted of a canvas Sander left outside, which had become a mold magnet. Although it was “really ugly,” Waters desperately wanted it. “The problem with buying it,” he said, “is that the mold will spread in your house, and it’s toxic. So this to me is the best art piece I’ve seen all year, and I’m still trying to figure out how I could own it without poisoning myself.”

Some of his other favorite pieces in his collection include works by Elaine Sturtevant, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Richard Artschwager, and Richard Tuttle. (When Waters’ father saw what he thought to be a rather un-artful Tuttle piece his son had purchased, he chuckled and remarked, “They saw you coming, boy!”)

A whole other level of Waters’ art collection includes a large body of work that he’s acquired from fans, sent to him care of Atomic Books in Baltimore, where he has collected his mail for over 20 years. He keeps almost everything his fans send to him, including all manner of books which he adds to his 8,000-strong collection, and portraits of him that cover an entire wall in his home (“some are great, some are hideous, and I love all of them.”) He considers all of these things “weird collectibles” and points out that he doesn’t list these items on his art insurance policies.

Waters’ collection is a highly personal statement about what he loves about being human: irreverence, wit, and the joy of seeing and of looking. You won’t find him collecting pieces only because they may someday appreciate in value, and that, my friends, is the kind of art collector that understands that the most important value of art is the emotional attachment to a piece and the way it viscerally connects with the way you perceive the world.
Please join us April 23 at The Rococo Theatre in Lincoln, Nebraska for an unforgettable night of storytelling by the all-around fabulous Mr. John Waters and follow us to the reception just down the street at the Ross Media Arts Center following the performance. I hope my painting, created in honor of John Waters’s visit, will inspire the joy of seeing and looking for you! ~WJ BANTAM

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