NEW YORK - At the appointed hour on Saturday night, John Waters was, he allowed, a bit nervous. "I should be. If you're not, you're a jerk," he said.
Waters, a stark presence dressed in black, was surrounded by admirers who were feting him at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Soho, where his photographic exhibition, Change of Life, just opened.
Earlier, the filmmaker, author and contemporary artist scanned his equally stark surroundings with a look of concern and, could it be, uncertainty?
Since 1995, Waters' stills, shot from video that boils down the essence of favorite films into a few symbolic frames, have been exhibited around the world.
A solo show at a bona fide museum in New York is a giant step for the artist, who has become a master of spinning ideas inspired by his own and others' work into movies, books, photography, sculpture and a Broadway hit called Hairspray.
"A museum show is a big deal for me," Waters said.
Hundreds of museum members and friends, including a lively Baltimore crowd, streamed through the space, undeterred by a lukewarm review in The New York Times. The same exclusive contemporary art world that Waters skewered in his 1998 film, Pecker, was embracing him as one of its own.
At the entrance, visitors - dressed in mink, shocking pink, knee socks and spike heels - traveled through a larger-than-life "pop-up" photographic recreation of the library in Waters' Baltimore home. Designed by Waters' long-time production designer, Vince Peranio, the installation, with its photographic images of Waters' books, vintage electric chair and gross-out novelties, set an unexpectedly cozy stage for the artist's skewed world view.
Peranio, at the opening with his wife, Delores Deluxe, was surprised Waters allowed such an "intimate look at his life" that stopped just short of his medicine cabinet.
Saturday's crowd certainly reflected Waters' universe, where celebrity can quickly flip into notoriety. Actress Liz Renay wore a cloud of curly platinum hair and received admirers with the air of B-movie royalty. Renay played Muffy in Desperate Living, made by Waters in 1977. "I got to murder three people," Renay remembered fondly.
Prim in a dark suit, Patricia Hearst, heiress, fugitive and Waters film star, came with her husband, Bernard L. Shaw. Like others in Waters' quasi-celebrity coterie, she responded graciously to fawning fans who shared the filmmaker's love of weird, American icons.
Hearst, though a bit aloof, clearly accepted her status as a figure in Waters' world. They socialize, he's like an uncle to her kids, and they both collect art. Speaking of her artist-friend's penchant for buying art that he hates at first, Hearst said, "He has to hate it in a good way."
Outside the library, visitors peered at Waters' stills, which dwell upon recurrent themes such as sex, childbirth and drug addiction, proving that Waters' obsessions often coincide with our own. Many pieces are from the collections of Ben Stiller, Todd Oldham, Johnny Depp and other famous folks, adding yet another layer to the cult of celebrity that consumes Waters.
Guests chortled at Farrah, a series of stills featuring stars, including Cary Grant and Julia Roberts, whom Waters has adorned with actress Farrah Fawcett's extravagant mane. In a group of photographs called In My House, they got to see that the contents of Waters' dishwasher, freezer and the space under his kitchen sink pretty much looks like theirs.
It was Brenda Richardson, former deputy director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, who approached the New Museum with the idea of a Waters show. "It's time for his work to be seen in this context," said Richardson, who still lives in Baltimore. "It's both the same and different than any other contemporary art. It adds to the rich spectrum. It's not about a particular thing."
In seminal ways, museum visitors were made aware that Waters is very, very different, even if he has the same frozen stuff in his freezer. As three of his earliest films were screened in dark alcoves, an aura of strange promise for the self-professed "odd duck" who became a Broadway darling emerged. In the precious Soho climate, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, shot in Waters' bedroom in 1964, came across as a veritable Birth of a Nation for the Warhol set.
In works such as Movie Star Jesus, the fine line between fringe fetishes and those of established institutions disappear. By juxtaposing his muse, the late Divine, with Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and other divas, Waters' photography also blurs the distinction between outsider and insider and stresses the ease with which one can become the other, if only in fantasy - or tales of horror.
Celebrating Baltimoreans mingled seamlessly with the New York crowd. Naturally, Pat Moran, Waters' friend of 40 years and a Baltimore casting director, had come. Caustic and cuddly, she said she had no choice but to dress up and attend the party. "It's not like going to Cross Street Market," she complained mildly.
Waters' parents made their way through the exhibition, stopping to speak with their son's New York friends. Baltimore gallery owner Costas Grimaldis scrutinized the photo series, and Frank Mills, of Towson, pointed out a photo he once snapped of Divine.
Baltimore television personality Rhea Feikin caught up with Arnold Lehman, former director of the Baltimore Museum of Art and current director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Lehman was impressed with Waters' insight. Referring to the messages beneath Hollywood's glitzy facade, he said, "These photographs are a very special view of a whole world that most people simply take for granted."
A bit of Baltimore creeps into them as well, Lehman said. "There is a grittiness to the photos that in many instances would never appear in anybody else's work."
Toward the reception's end, actor Steve Buscemi arrived. He and Waters chatted so quietly that no one in the gawking semi-circle that formed around them could hear what was said.
The two resemble one another in a slightly sinister, bug-eyed way. Each could pass as the evil twin of actor Don Knotts, who, by the way, surfaces in an exhibit piece called Self-Portrait, in which the corny actor and the mordant Waters become interchangeable.
By the end of the night, Waters was transformed - but not into Don Knotts. As bad taste became good taste and Elizabeth Taylor turned into Divine, Waters, the perennial outsider, became, once again, the consummate insider.
John Waters: Change of Life, runs through April 15 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583 Broadway. Call 212-219-1222 or visit www. newmuseum.org.