“Come on in, I’ll give you a tour,” says John Waters, in character already, with his pencil moustache—he draws it on every day with an eyebrow pencil, specifically Maybelline Expert Eyes in Velvet Black—when he greets me at the door of his circa-1927 Arts and Crafts–style home in Baltimore.
He bought the place in 1990 in the wake of the success of his film Hairspray (1988), and it’s in a tidy, leafy neighborhood in the north of the city. To use the high school class divide evoked in his film Cry-Baby (1990), this is the Baltimore of Allison Vernon-Williams and the “squares,” not of the misfit Drapes crew of Johnny Depp’s Wade Walker (much less that of The Wire).
“The house that trash built,” he calls it, in his familiar insinuating drawl, welcoming me next to the creepy oversize visage of Michael Jackson (actually an artwork by Gary Hume) staring at you through a peephole. By the baseboard—you almost stumble over it—is a Tommy gun right out of the movies, resting atop its violin case.
Scattered about are what appear to be spoiled bits of food but turn out to be gag dust-collectors. And wait: Isn’t that a taxidermied kitten curled up in the corner? “I didn’t kill it,” he assures me. "As Liberace used to say about his fur coats, they were dead when I got it.”
The abundance of kitsch in the house is in keeping with the outré sensibility of Waters’s films. The furnishings are an eclectic clutter of artwork, pulp and crime books, and assorted oddball objects that Waters finds in some way amusing, all nestled amid tasteful Persian runners, heavy red-velvet curtains, built-in bookshelves, a formal dining-room table that seats eight under a crystal chandelier, and antique wooden tables piled with art books—from Mapplethorpe to Magritte, with lots of Warhol.
There’s the blue-chip scrawl of a series of Cy Twombly drawings framed on the wall and a Peter Hujar photo of garbage cans, titled—yes— Trash, and an oddly unsettling piece consisting of three actual airplane windows by Michail Pirgelis, which Waters says he likes because they are a kind of tribute to how much of his life he spends flying.
Waters has invited me to his home to discuss his art, both what he collects and what he creates. For more than a quarter-century, Waters has not just been avidly acquiring art but making work that ruminates archly on Hollywood, the media, sex, consumerism, and the weirdness of celebrity—including his own. (His Beverly Hills John, from 2012, for example, is a doctored photograph in which he gives himself a full nip-and-tuck makeover.)
“A lot of my movie fans don’t even know I do it,” he tells me as we sit down to chat in his book-lined study where he still goes at 6 a.m., Monday to Friday, to write. “It’s important to me to keep that very separate.”
This fall, the Baltimore Museum of Art presents a retrospective, John Waters: Indecent Exposure (October 7–January 6, after which it travels to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio). This is the most extensive retrospective of his artwork yet, and he’s happy to have it in his hometown museum.
“Baltimore Museum was the first place that ever gave my films a retrospective, and this was before Hairspray,” he tells me, as we stand next to a framed Joan Miró print he bought almost 60 years ago in the BMA gift shop for $1 (the first work he ever acquired). When he was a kid, he went to the BMA and saw modern art for the first time: “I saw the power of contemporary art and how it infuriated people.”
Waters says he “blundered” into making his own work in 1992, after the death of his friend and collaborator Divine (the drag persona of actor Harris Glenn Milstead), star of a number of his films, including Pink Flamingos (1972), a classic of transgressiveness that has been known to make viewers spontaneously vomit.
Waters’s early films were madcap productions made with his merry band of up-for-whatever Baltimore pals, and he didn’t always think to make sure he had all the production stills he needed. As he put it in the catalog of the show: “I needed a shot of Divine from Multiple Maniacs that I didn’t have, and I took it off the TV screen. And it didn’t look like the movie. It looked better.”
He called the grainy, jumpy photo Divine in Ecstasy. He was happy enough with it that he began to reexamine his and other films with his camera. His friend, the late gallerist Colin de Land, liked the photographs and exhibited them in 1995.
Today, Waters is represented by Marianne Boesky, a gallerist who shows artists like Frank Stella and Sanford Biggers. He chose Boesky in 2004 because she talked to him as an artist rather than an outsider icon: “I wasn’t a groupie,” she says. His fear was that she thought of him as a celebrity, not an artist. “He wanted the art to stand on its own.”
Boesky says Waters rarely misses a show at her gallery. “He is a voracious cultural absorber,” she says, noting that he systematically keeps up with gallery and museum exhibitions, getting to know artists and often buying things himself. Her one complaint? He won’t let her charge enough. “He has always wanted to have his prices stay reasonable—which is to say low,” she says. (“Well, she raised them last time,” says Waters when I asked him about that.)
But keeping his prices relatively affordable fits with Waters’s more general keeping-it-real strategy, and his efforts to maintain his Baltimore cred. Baltimore is John Waters’s muse and also his anchor. Being based there keeps him away from the hurly-burly of Hollywood self-regard.
As he put it in his 1981 memoir, Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, his hometown has kept him grounded in the weird: “Most movie producers make the mistake of living in New York or Los Angeles and you can tell by their films that they’ve lost touch with real America. Baltimore is about as close to reality as I can get.” He added that he likes to drive around in his car aimlessly “looking for hideous human interest.”
Baltimore “is still cheap enough to have a Bohemia,” he says, although anybody who dresses in Comme des Garçons and owns Twombly drawings isn’t exactly a struggling artist anymore. But he doesn’t see the point in surrounding himself with members of the bourgeois elites: Where’s the fun in that? And where’s the inspiration?
While his movies are all about Baltimore in some way, his artwork looks beyond the city to the culture at large. “He has a very sophisticated sense of the art world—he sees everything,” says the BMA exhibition’s curator, Kristen Hileman. “And yet the artwork is all about poking fun at all the pretentious rituals and exclusivity in the art world.”
This is the perspective he explored in his semi-auto-biographical movie Pecker, in which the New York art muckety-mucks go crazy over the Waters-esque title character’s photos of his wacky friends and family (“Pecker is like a humane Diane Arbus!” swoons a Whitney curator). The success almost ruins Pecker’s life because he no longer fits in in his hometown, which feels exploited. (In a meta-commentary on Waters’s insider/outsider status, Cindy Sherman makes a cameo.)
“One of the things that I had to deal with in the show, and thinking through the show, is that, like, some of the jokes are really, like, in horrible taste,” Hileman says. There is Waters’s fascination with Charles Manson and the Manson family, for one. In the piece Playdate, an infantsize Manson in black pajamas meets a Michael Jackson in pink Dr. Denton’s. Jackson seems enthralled.
She mentions a piece in which he took photographs of the opening titles of two films that had been scheduled to run on one of the flights that flew into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. (They happened to be A Knight’s Tale and Dr. Dolittle 2). The point seems to be to juxtapose the banality of the entertainment selections with the fact that the potential viewers of those films that day were about to be killed as part of an event that changed human history.
“It somehow allows us all to access this, what already is a shared experience, but in a more profoundly human way. It sort of puts us all there in an empathetic place,” says Hileman. “And over and over again, I find that these pieces that initially seem incredibly dark, or deliberately provocative, they do this: trigger some kind of catharsis where you can actually feel things in a more honest and straightforward way.”
The BMA has only four Waters pieces in its permanent collection, including a video work, Kiddie Flamingos, and John Jr., in which he took a picture of a pastel portrait of him that his parents had commissioned when he was a child— which I saw hanging at his house, in a corner—and then he drew his mustache, and then printed it and reframed it in the same frame. “That’s why you see what looks like a double frame, but, for John Waters, it’s a very sweet, sentimental work,” says Hileman. “I love the way that it gets at this idea that he’s really cultivated a personality.”
At 72, the filmmaker who became famous as the Prince of Puke has found himself an unlikely mainstream icon, éminence grise of sunny, all-American subversive perversity, with high schools around the country performing the musical based on Hairspray. Maybe more to the point, mainstream caught up with him. He has even been called upon to give uplifting talks to college students to urge them to be more courageously offensive. “I love the fact that a lot of people come up to me all the time and say, “'You gave me permission to be who I am,’” Waters tells me.
On the day I met him, he was wryly giddy at having just gotten back from New York City after receiving the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an honor given to those who have “contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world.” Upstairs, in his office, he unveils it to me, still in its box. Dum de de dum!
“I was proud,” he says. “From the Prince of Puke to that,” he says. “I just feel lucky that I lived long enough to see this,” he says, before taking a Polaroid of me and filing it away—a habit he’s had with visitors to his house for decades. “All these things usually happen after you’re dead.