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“I’ll be the judge of that”: John Waters on the power of — and hatred for — contemporary art

Gallery view of “Absentee Landlord,” with works by Claes Oldenburg, Gedi Sibony, Scott Burton, and Marlene McCarty. All photos by Cameron Wittig. Filmmaker and pop culture provocateur John Waters has played many roles in his career, but never that of curator until now. At the invitation of the Walker, he enacted a “curatorial intervention” in […]


Gallery view of “Absentee Landlord,” with works by Claes Oldenburg, Gedi Sibony, Scott Burton, and Marlene McCarty. All photos by Cameron Wittig.

Filmmaker and pop culture provocateur John Waters has played many roles in his career, but never that of curator until now. At the invitation of the Walker, he enacted a “curatorial intervention” in one of its current collection exhibitions and the result, Absentee Landlord, is infused with his trademark blend of subversion, wit, and insight. Walker curator Betsy Carpenter recently spoke with Waters about his lifelong interest in art and his own photographic practice.

Betsy Carpenter
Most people coming to the exhibition will know you as a filmmaker and a writer, but fewer will know that you are an avid collector of contemporary art. Since this is your first foray as a curator here at the Walker, would you give us a little background?

John Waters
I bought the first piece in my collection when I was maybe eight years old. I went to the Baltimore Museum of Art, and in the gift shop they had for probably a dollar a print of a work by Miró. I remember I loved it and took it home and put it in my bedroom, and all my friends went, “Ew, that’s horrible, why would you hang that ugly thing?” And I realized the great power that contemporary art has. I still have that piece and it really looks real because it’s so old and it’s in this old frame. It’s the only fake I have in my whole house but it was the first thing in my collection, so I like to think of it as real.

Carpenter
Do you remember what it was about the Miró that struck you?

Waters
Well, I wasn’t looking for compliments. I was just saying to myself that I liked it— and then I was amazed to see how crazy it could make people who couldn’t see what I saw, which was, I guess, art. That was the first time that had ever happened.

Carpenter
Were your parents interested in art?

Waters
Not especially, but we did have big books of classics, of old masters and that kind of stuff. And of course, I always looked at anything with nudity—as a child that was the main thing I wanted to look for in the old masters. We got Life magazine, and at that time it was like getting 100 magazines today. Life made Jackson Pollock famous; I remember reading the article “Is Jackson Pollock the Greatest Living Painter?” and being obsessed by  that. Later, as a teenager, I pretended to be an abstract painter but my work was horrible; I kept none of it. I wanted to be a beatnik—that character that Ric Ocasek played in Hairspray, that’s kind of what I wanted to be. I remember liking Marisol’s work, and I really liked Kienholz a lot. His works were fascinating to me—a little bit dirty and a little bit shocking.

Carpenter
So true, there is definitely a dark side to his work.

Waters
So I was always drawn to that kind of stuff. My parents did not discourage it, but they certainly didn’t love my interests. Before my dad died he used to say to me whenever I would buy something, “You bought that? They saw you coming, boy.” I’ve never even sold one piece I’ve collected in the past, but my dad was the only person I ever would be uncouth enough to show auction prices to—like “See?” I find that really offensive in general, but with my dad I liked doing that and he would laugh.

Carpenter
You are also a photographer. When did your photographic practice start? Was it an extension of your filmmaking?

Waters
Around about 1990, I think, I started doing it for myself, but I didn’t show it to anybody for a while. Before that I had collected contemporary art for a long time. I have a silver Jackie Kennedy print by Warhol and a couple of Lichtensteins that I got in high school. The Jackie was given to me by my girlfriend—it was that long ago. It was $100, which was like $1,000 then. It was a lot. So I did collect art very early, and then I stopped for a long time, and when I finally got a little money from making movies, I started again. I went to every gallery around the late ’80s, and always went to Colin de Land’s gallery, American Fine Arts. I really liked his shows the best. One day Colin just said, “Do you ever paint or anything?” I said, “No, but I have these little photographs.” He said, “What do you mean you have these photographs?” So I did have a  whole body of work already, and I think I had purposefully only showed them to very few people until Colin came down and saw them and he offered me a show.

Carpenter
Do you think you needed to have that support or a certain validation from a gallery to take your work seriously as an artist?

Waters
Oh, yes. Especially for me coming into the art world from show business, something which in America—not so much in Europe but in America—creates this great skepticism.

Carpenter
Let’s go back to talk about what it was about contemporary art that your eightyear- old self who bought the Miró recognized as a power to piss people off.

Waters
Well, Jackson Pollock pissed people off. Then Warhol pissed off all the people that liked Jackson Pollock, which was even more exciting to me. So of course Pop art is what got me hooked. I was very, very obsessed. As a teenager I actually would sneak away to New York on a bus and go see shows. I saw Claes Oldenburg’s Store when it opened originally, and the really early Warhol films, too.

Gallery view of Absentee Landlord, with works by Yves Klein, Eugene Meatyard, Carl Andre, and Russ Meyers

Carpenter
You witnessed key moments, legendary really, of 20th-century art. Today the art of that era has been accepted, even embraced by the general public, whereas back then it wasn’t.

Waters
Oh, it was mostly made fun of. You look at Warhol’s beautiful little soup cans on the walls, the ones that started the whole thing, and they’re so exquisite, and they’re hand-painted, and they were so amazing. And you realize how incredibly radical that was. To me, that’s what the ’60s were, not the Beatles and stuff, but the Warhol years and certainly the larger Pop art  movement and the fashions from Betsey Johnson’s Paraphernalia shop. Warhol certainly was the first ever to put drugs and homosexuality together, which was incredibly radical at the time because gay people were kind of square then, and Andy made them much hipper. I think he began gay liberation, even though he was the kind of gay person who didn’t even fit in that world. I’ve always found the people I’m most attracted to are minorities that can’t fit in their own minority.

Carpenter
So turning to the current moment, do you feel that the contemporary art world today still has that same sort of power to provoke?

Waters
Minimalism used to be the easiest way to infuriate people, but now that they have gotten used to it, it’s lost a little bit of its kick. That doesn’t mean it’s less good, but people have seen it before so they’ve gotten a little more used to it. Contemporary art still can make people crazy, but there is not a new movement. I’ve always wondered what the next generation of rebellion is going to be. When I was younger, it was being juvenile delinquents and beatniks and hippies and punks, and then grunge and rappers, but now what? Well, if you’re a bad boy or girl now you’re a hacker. That is how you rebel, and there is no fashion from hacking except bad posture from sitting in front of your computer. Certainly appropriation — “stealing” to the general public — can still anger people, yes. Some civilians can have great hatred for contemporary art, and that’s why whenever you go to court and have a jury deciding on appropriation, you always lose when you try to explain because they are angry that it’s worth that much in the first place, much less that you “copied.” The jury hates you for liking it and being able to see the art in it.

Carpenter
The idea that somehow artists are swindlers …

Waters
Maybe they are, but is that bad? I can’t stand when people say they’re “artists.” I always say, “Well, I believe that’s up to history to decide.” Or, “I believe I’ll be the judge of that.”

Carpenter
But don’t you consider yourself an artist?

Waters
I don’t call myself that. I say I use photography. I choke on saying I’m an artist because I really believe that is not up to me to decide. Sometimes it’s just easier to say that because you have an art show. But really, my work is hardly like Ansel Adams.’ I’m hardly using photography in that way, so it doesn’t really work to say I’m a photographer either. But when people say that to me, “I’m an artist,” I always do choke a little and think to myself, “Well! We’ll see about that!”

Waters and Carpenter (left) working on “Absentee Landlord” with chief curator Darsie Alexander

Carpenter
One of the benefits of working with you on this exhibition is that you have kept me laughing, and many of the works that you have selected for the show are ironic, even laugh-out-loud funny. But our audience should know that you take the art you collect very seriously. I’m interested in this fine line between seriousness and humor.

Waters
Well, to me contemporary art uses wit, and uses humor a lot, too. I would say Richard Tuttle isn’t funny, but he can use wit in a way that startles you. And I am serious about what I collect, but at the same time I embrace the impenetrability of some art, I embrace the elitism of the art world. I find it humorous because it is a secret club. Art is a magic trick. That somebody can take one thing and just put it here and call it art is a magic trick—if you can see it, and at first you can’t see it. 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.

Most people are mad that you can see it, and they think you’re lying and being pretentious. To me, pretension is pretending to see something you don’t. Well, I do see it. There is a certain humor about something that takes someone two seconds to draw that maybe goes on auction 30 years later for $10,000,000, but that’s great. That’s the magic trick of art! A lot of the art I like brings out the most unsophisticated thing you can possibly say about art, which is, “My kid could have done that.” And, the thing is, “Well then, stupid, why didn’t he? It just sold for $2,000,000. Who’s the moron?” Or the emperor’s new clothes. To me, well, that is art! If you  can convince somebody that you have fashion when you’re naked, isn’t that what art is? You learn to see something that others can’t.

 

  • Great, I think I’m going to quit gradschool and sell some overpriced contemporary internet art now.

    I enjoy the overarching concept but I see none of the gimmickry presented in the way he’s installed the works. From what I see in the documentation it’s actually very conservative and in keeping with gallery conventions. If it were actually subversive the curator should breach the way the artists intended for the work to be exhibited. I’d make one work intrude into the viewing space of another’s… maybe even place them together.

    I’m all for conflating artistic/curatorial power and changing the stakes of distribution but it seems like this goes back to reifying dated andtrickled-down tropes of inaccessibility and gimmickry from the conceptual/postmodern masters.
    Could the artist-curator also exercised his artstar-power to curate overlooked video/immaterial works from the collection?

    This is anachronistic-contemporary, not emergent contemporaneity. As an emerging artist I don’t see the point in duping the dupe (selling a piece of work that looks lazy for a high price to exercise economical agency over the elite when possible) and this seems like an inappropriate attitude when the general public already don’t see a reason to invest in art or to fund it.

    I respect John Waters and his experience in media art production, but the last paragraph doesn’t provide valuable answers to buy/collect contemporary art and won’t persuade academics or outsiders alike enjoy it. I’m not sure what this show is about if I didn’t know about the statement. However, I do appreciate that he’s totally straightforward about his curatorial approach.