Five letters that spell out the word “C R A Z Y” are framed and on view in a new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art. They were scribbled by hand on an old piece of brown cardboard and the letters slope precipitously downhill.
The artist? John Waters, Sr., the late father of the Baltimore cult filmmaker.
The drawing was intended by the father to mock his son’s early purchase of a 1978 scribble drawing by the artist Cy Twombly, the former art world laughingstock whose most important pieces now sell for tens of millions of dollars.
“My father was the kind of person contemporary art infuriated,” Waters, a BMA trustee, said at a press preview Tuesday of “Coming Attractions: the John Waters Collection,” an exhibit of 83 works from the filmmaker’s personal collection opening Sunday. Guest curators Catherine Opie and Jack Pierson have selected highlights from the 375-work collection, which Waters bequeathed to his hometown museum in 2020.
“My dad wrote ‘CRAZY’ on an old piece of cardboard, which he thought I was for buying it,” Waters Jr. recalled. “And he started saying, ‘You bought THAT? They saw you coming, boy.’”
On an adjoining gallery wall hangs “Five Greek Poets and a Philosopher,” the seven Twombly lithographs that so enraged the filmmaker’s father. As viewers look from one scribble drawing to the other, it might not be immediately apparent which is the artwork worth big bucks and which the clever copy.
“It is absolutely not my dad’s normal handwriting,” Waters said. “He was trying to imitate Cy Twombly. But what he didn’t realize is that subconsciously he did understand the artwork, because his drawing looks exactly like Cy did it.”
Perhaps it wasn’t only Twombly whom Waters, Sr., saw and secretly appreciated, but his brilliant, potty-mouthed, sweet-natured oddball namesake, John Waters, Jr.
It’s fair to say that Waters — an art collector, author, visual artist, performer, filmmaker and fashion icon — exerts an oversized influence on contemporary American culture. At the press preview, the galleries were packed with reporters and camera crews.
The paintings, prints and photographs on view through April 16, 2023 include such major artists as Twombly, Diane Arbus, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman and two announcement cards by Andy Warhol, in addition to works by less famous creators that nonetheless captured Waters’ imagination. This last group includes a memorable finger-painting from around 1955 by Betsy the chimpanzee, a former resident of the Maryland Zoo.
“Betsy was a very famous chimpanzee that toured all over the world,” said Waters, who included a chapter about primate art in his 2019 book, “Mr. Know-it-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.”
“She went on national TV. Betsy carried a suitcase and had a little hat.”
When Waters’ artworks aren’t on view in a public gallery, they are displayed in the filmmaker’s three homes in Baltimore, New York and San Francisco.
“John is the rare collector that hangs every piece of art he owns,” Pierson said. “Most people that collect art have storage units. But John doesn’t have one piece that’s not on the wall.”
When viewed as a whole, the artworks in “Coming Attractions” amount to a kind of visual biography. They reflect not just the tastes of the 76-year-old artist with the trademark pencil mustache, but the questions he asks, his often self-deprecating sense of humor, and some of the places and people that matter to him.
Waters occasionally quips that he resides “in a commune.” He refers to the pieces in his collection as his “roommates” because, he says, “I live with them, and I look at them every day.”
Some of the filmmaker’s quirkier cohabitants include a drawing of two rectangular Ls stacked one atop the other by Serra, an artist best known for his monumental metal sculptures. At the bottom of the drawing, Serra has written: “Happy Birthday John 1996.”
“It’s meant to be two of his sculptures engaged in sexual congress,” Waters said. “Richard Serra is not known for his sense of humor. But I love Richard, and this was a really great present.”
A 1969 card in which Warhol announces an upcoming portfolio of his iconic prints of Campbell Soup cans. The can of soup depicted on the announcement — cheddar cheese — seems a particularly apt selection by the irreverent filmmaker. And according to the label, it works “great as a sauce, too!”
Several works delight in playing jokes on their viewers. For instance, a toilet paper roll sculpture by George Stoll occupies a place of honor in Waters’ New York apartment. The filmmaker had to get permission from his condo association to install the holder directly into his wall.
“So, the super[intendent] came up,” Waters said, “and he’s putting a roll of toilet paper in the living room. The toilet paper is made from green chiffon, and it puddles on the floor. I said, ‘This is going to be art.’ He looked at me like, ‘Oh great. What’s going on with this pervert?’”
Another tenant is “Female Impersonators Backstage,” a 1962 photograph by Arbus, who specialized in empathetic portraits of people on society’s fringes. In the background of the photo, one female impersonator cavorts before the camera in a nightgown and curly wig. In the foreground, a shirtless young man glances at the camera over his shoulder while holding a tube of lipstick.
The bare-chested man is the late actor Howard Grueber, who appeared in at least three Waters films: “Eat Your Makeup” from 1968, “Multiple Maniacs” from 1970 and “Pink Flamingos” from 1972.
Waters said that Grueber “ran away from his home in Baltimore to be in the Jewel Box Revue,” a famed New York-based touring company of female impersonators.
“This photograph was taken before I met him,” Waters said. “Howard always told me, ‘Diane just showed up one day backstage.’ They didn’t know who she was.”
“Looking at Trash,” a 1985 photograph by Peter Hujar is also a resident.
“You know, that’s what I built my career on,” Waters said. “That’s what I bought my house on. That’s what I bought this art with: the profits of trash.
“This pile of garbage hangs in my living room, the most formal room in my house. Trash can be beautiful. It can be elegant. That’s what this photograph says.”