I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Under normal circumstances, introducing John Waters would be a pure formality. He is easily the world’s most famous icon of cultural outrage and transgression. As a filmmaker, he has created a body of work that is widely recognized as one of the great treasures of American movie history, and he has inspired a degree of reverence in his admirers that few if any other directors can claim. Early classics like Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos remain among the most quoted and name-checked movies of all time. Midcareer films like the Broadway-anointed Hairspray and Waters’s comedy masterpiece Serial Mom launched the aesthetics of younger directors like Wes Anderson and Todd Solondz. Recent movies like Cecil B. Demented and Pecker are easily his most daring and impressive films to date. Waters is that rare creature, a great artist whose oeuvre has achieved not only critical respect but also massive international popularity. Still, Waters’s visual art, in which he photographs old, low-budget movies playing on his TV set then combines select freeze-frames into witty pictorial narratives, remains relatively unknown and uncelebrated outside the contemporary art world, and even to some degree within it. Just as it took many years for the film community to acknowledge the genius in Waters’s unique, iconoclastic movies, the art world has taken its sweet time in giving his equally original and daredevil visual art its due. Now, after close to a decade of being exhibited in galleries around the world, Waters’s photographs and photographic collages are receiving an official stamp of approval in the form of a retrospective at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown New York. Cocurated by Lisa Phillips and Marvin Heiferman, John Waters: Change of Life opened in February and runs through late April.
Dennis Cooper Would it be fair to say that you think a facial expression is more interesting than a brushstroke?
John Waters A facial expression?
DC Let me put it this way. A painting is constructed of brushstrokes. Your visual art is constructed of freeze-frames, and most of them involve people’s faces, so in a way, the facial expression is your art’s equivalent of the brushstroke.
JW I see it more as my material. I don’t think that it’s my paint, because I think my work is about writing and editing more than it’s about photography or color. I love to take color pictures of black-and-white films transferred to video off the TV monitor because it looks so sickly and bad. The images I use tell a story in a different kind of way than the source material intended. That’s what I mean when I say it’s more about writing. Maybe the facial expressions work like subtitles: they tell you how to read the work’s narrative. Because my pieces are like storyboards, many of them. They’re storyboards that I don’t have to turn into a movie. I’m taking a movie and turning it into a storyboard.
DC One of the great innovations of your work both in the visual arts and in film is the way you present personality as a serious artistic subject. There’s your interest in personality—capturing it, arranging it, depicting it. And then there’s the overriding personality of your art. Is editing, selecting and combining images a matter of finding balance between your personality, which informs all your art, and the personalities of your subjects?
JW It’s a matter of refining it, to me. And hopefully reducing it to what people in the film business call a high concept. It’s that one moment that delights me for some reason, and that I hope can delight others, or rather horrify others—or get them to see in a different way. Most of my source material is from failed movies or forgotten movies or movies from the bottom of the $1.98 reduced bin that no one cares about anymore. If I use an image from an epic movie, it’s always to destroy it in some way: as in Hair in the Gate, the money shot from every big movie but with a hair in it. Personality is certainly important. Personality is what interests me in writing, in art, in movies, everything. So if I can make my photographs have a new personality, it’s giving them new life.
I started doing this because I wanted stills that were not available. I wanted publicity photos that no newspaper would print. The work is about show business and about an insider kind of thing. The whole art world is about insiders. You have to learn how to see and all that. So that’s there and important, but at the same time, I’m delighting in personality. And that’s why I’m never bored. I mean, I can sit on a corner or go into a 7-11, and I can make up a story about every single person I see, a really complicated story, instantaneously, almost, as they walk by. And that’s good practice.
DC In your stories, there’s outrageous and even juicy stuff, yet there’s a sincerity and a respect for the character that’s very different from how, say, E! television or Access Hollywood goes for the juicy but reduces it to the palatable and banal.
JW Well, that’s a different thing because they’re trying to appeal to everybody. We know the delightful, wonderful, great thing about the art world is that you have to appeal to about three people. Which is such a relief to me. And the three people you have to appeal to are especially moody and snotty. I love that. I’m so for that. So, it’s the exact opposite way of seeing. I’m not against E! entertainment. I think they actually did a great biography of Divine. I’m not against what they do, but I don’t see the connection in any way. But then I watch television almost never. I mean the only time I ever turn on the television is to take pictures of it for my artwork, or to watch porno. Turning on the television is something that’s very hard for me to do.
DC You see personality as an art form. Warhol was interested in personality and depicted it in his work, but while he would erase himself, your personality is the fabric of your art. Your art is your personality, and within that personality there are layers of other personalities. It’s quite complex.
JW I’m so glad you say art—I can’t say that word out loud because that’s up to others to decide. I would never say I’m an artist. I hate when you ask people what they do, and they say, “I’m an artist.” I believe I’ll be the judge of that. Saying somebody’s work is art is a good review. But what was the question? Oh, about my personality. It’s completely in my photo shows because I’m still the one telling those twisted little narratives. I’m telling them in a different context and in a different world, but as in the films, I’m making fun, in a way, of something that I really, really love. I think that is the personality of all my work, no matter if you like it or not.
DC It’s the way your personality and the personalities of your subjects collude and collide and mix that’s so interesting. How much fine-tuning do you have to do to make sure your personality doesn’t interfere with or override their very distinct personalities? Is it second nature to you, or is that balance a very deliberate and labored-over thing?
JW Does it come easy? You know, I have a studio, and that’s the only place I really ever think of ideas for my photographic pieces. So when I’m going to have a new show, I go over there, where I have envelopes full of photographs I’ve taken for possible future pieces. I fine-tune them by putting them all out on the floor and editing them. It’s like pitching a movie in a way. I only have three stills to tell you a whole story. The movie pitch is the ultimate high concept of the motion-picture business. You know the joke: studio executives have the attention span of gnats, so you have to tell them the whole thing in one sentence. Well, I’m making fun of that process in a way; I’m reducing all movies to the one second that I think you really only need to remember. But is it my personality? Whenever I put my own image in it, I try to annihilate my celebrity. I did a piece using all these glamorous Greg Gorman head shots of me. I defaced each one of them in a unique way: rubber stamps, Wite-Out, press-type patterns, rubber roaches glued to my face…. I autographed one of them 100 times to obliterate the image. Or there’s one called Self-Portrait, in which I turn into Don Knotts. Well, that’s just about low self-esteem. Everybody in the art world and show business secretly does have low self-esteem. That’s why we take the risk every day of having to worry if strangers like us. That’s what reviews are. I mean you put yourself on the chopping block for the rest of your life. I’m just trying to make fun of my weaknesses and celebrate them.
DC That kind of self-examination is one of the many things that distinguish your visual art from your films.
JW My films are about people who would never win in real life. They always win in my movies.
DC You never annihilate them. In your visual art, there is plenty of annihilation going on.
JW I’m annihilating my own celebrity. That’s a very, very different thing. In the art world, I believe my celebrity as a filmmaker is the source of great suspicion. I know that. I’m recognizing it. It’s the only thing I can’t change. So I like to make fun of it. That’s mental health, isn’t it? In your own life, if you can’t change something, you make fun of it, and you learn to live with it and accept it. That’s maturity. If you can make fun of your worst night, you will survive everybody.
DC (laughter) I’ll remember that.
JW It’s true. (laughter) Think of the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. If you can think of a humorous way to tell somebody that story, nobody can get to you. You can’t be blackmailed.
DC You’re one of the few artists where if someone announces him- or herself as a fan of yours, it’s a way for them to identify themselves. To define oneself as a John Waters fan is to announce one’s way of looking at the world.
JW Matthew Marks said the best thing. He said, “You are the best kind of celebrity there is. The only people who recognize you are the ones you’d want to.” And that’s true. People say the nicest stuff to me. And the people who say nice stuff to me are nice people, you know? They aren’t people clutching at you and lunatics. So what was the question?
DC The question was going to follow that statement. (laughter)
JW Then I butted in.
DC What I was going to get at is that there is a lot of preconception and prejudging of what you do because you have such a strong image. People have a preconceived notion of what you do. They’ll glance at your work and think they can judge it.
JW Well, I’ve always thought that, physically, I’d never have to go on a diet. If you’re my age, and you have something weird on your face, my mustache, and you wear strange shoes, no one looks in the middle.
JW That’s the secret, really. I just want to share that with middle-aged men.
DC I guess what I’m saying is that as a massive admirer of your work, and of your recent work in particular, I feel like your fame and reputation create a situation where your newer work doesn’t get the intricate attention it deserves.
JW I sort of disagree.
JW I think the press has always been pretty fair to me. You know, I made my first movie forty years ago. So I think I’ve had a fair shake. There has been some very, very intelligent criticism about my work. Of course, like everybody, I can remember the ones that really hurt me. But I never answer my critics. That’s the sign of a true amateur, I believe. So I would disagree with you. Basically, I have done what I set out to do in my life, yes, and I feel I have been adequately rewarded, I do.
DC Okay, then do you take your fame into account when you construct your work? Are you consciously dealing with the positive and negative impact that your fame has on the perception of your work?
JW I make fun of it in the photographs. But I have completely stopped putting myself in my movies. I do twenty to thirty John Waters performances around the country every year. I’m certainly not hiding from my fame. I recognize it. I think it’s part of my work. We’re talking about a trailer for my new movie that maybe will be just me introducing it, like William Castle used to do. I can’t say I’m innocent. I can’t say my fame happened without my participation. It happened with my participation from the very beginning because I’m a carny, and publicity is free advertising. When we started, I didn’t have any money for ads. So the only way we could get people to know our work was to make up some kind of persona to sell it. It wasn’t a lie, the persona, but, yes, I get dressed as John Waters some days. I admit that.
DC Knowing you as a friend, I am fascinated that you’re interested in so-called high art, but you’re also interested in art that functions strictly as a souvenir of a certain kind of sensibility. Say serial-killer art. Low art, in other words.
JW Well, that is true, but I have never bought serial-killing art in my life. I have a John Wayne Gacy painting that was a very welcome Christmas present from a friend, and I had it way before anybody had one. I do have a portrait of a serial killer, too, that was made for me by friends maybe 25 years ago. But I do not collect things like that. People always seem to think I do. I mean, a fan sent me a glass of dirt from John Wayne Gacy’s basement, and I wasn’t going to throw it out. Yeah, I recognize the horror of that little tchotchke. And I do have it in my house. But it was sent to me. I do not see things like that and art as the same thing. I consider them weird collectibles. When I have my art collection listed for insurance and stuff, they’re not listed there.
DC So how did your interest in visual art begin? Were you a kid?
JW Yeah. Well, I’ve told this story, but when I was about eight I went to the Baltimore Museum. My aunt took me there, and I saw this little Miró print, and I bought it and took it home. And when I had it home, all the other kids went, “Ooh, that’s the ugliest thing, you’re an idiot.” I felt this great power from it. So it was really an early way to rebel. And I still like work like that, that is kind of artless and inspires contempt in people who generally hate contemporary art. It’s the first thing I embrace.
DC Did you make art as a kid?
JW Well, my parents told me this story that I don’t remember. They said I always came home and told them about this kid who was so weird in school. All he did was paint with black crayons. They said I talked about him all the time. My mother said she talked to my teacher and my teacher told her that kid was me. A child psychologist can probably figure that one out.
DC You didn’t make paintings at home?
JW Yes, I did a little bit. When I was a teenager I loved Marisol. And of course Andy Warhol. Pop art was a great, great influence on me. And when I was in high school, my girlfriend—it’s that long ago—gave me a Warhol print of Jackie in 1964 that I still have. It’s in my dining room. It’s a Silver Jackie and I believe it cost $100 at the time, which is like $1000 today. It was a really big, great gift.
DC I was trying to think of a contemporary artist whose work bears comparison with yours. I suppose there could be quite a number, but the first artist who came to mind was John Baldessari.
JW Really? I think Richard Prince would be the one who’s closest. I talk about redirecting, and using that term is sort of kidding about what Richard did, which was rephotographing. If you got a portrait done by him, he would say, Well, show me a few pictures that you like yourself in. And then he’d take a picture of them. I think that’s so great. I’m a big fan of Richard’s. And of John Baldessari’s also, but his work is put together in a different way from mine. Maybe he added more art than I did. So certainly, of course, they both led to what I do, and Warhol led to what they do. I’m also a fan of Elaine Sturtevant now. Everybody who ever used appropriation in any way has certainly led to what I do.
DC The first artwork I loved when I was a teenager was a Baldessari. It was this large silkscreen photograph of him standing in front of a pole, and it said WRONG across the bottom.
JW (laughter) Yeah. It’s so liberating when something like that speaks to you, and you think, Oh God. When you can use it for defiance. And certainly every artist that you and I like uses defiance and destruction of what people thought of as art as a very, very important part of their work. Even the name of this magazine. Would you start a magazine called BOMB today? No. Already it’s a politically incorrect title. Imagine raising money for a magazine called BOMB after 9/11. And in show business, God, we could never have a magazine called that because it means something very, very different. It means flop!
DC (laughter) They were trying to force that rock band Anthrax to change their name after 9/11, but I don’t think they ended up doing it.
JW Well, remember AIDS diet candy? I mean talk about putting someone out of business overnight. They had that whole ad campaign: “Lose weight with AIDS.” Jesus.
DC Well, back in the late ’70s, my friend the poet Tim Dlugos and I always used to say about a boy we were attracted to that he had “the ass of death.”
JW AIDS ruined everything and it will never get back to right.
DC Okay, enough of that. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but when you recontextualize your own films in your visual art, you only use your early films. Why?
JW Because the bad technical aspects of the early work lend themselves very well to contemporary art. With the later work, I’ve tried, but it looks too slick. See, if you primitively photograph badly photographed movies, it becomes a new kind of rawness that I believe can work in the contemporary art world. I’m not saying that I think my older films look better than my newer ones, but they work better for what I’m trying to do on the contemporary art scene because they look more distorted. The one that works best for me is Mondo Trasho because with that one, you know, I cringe. It’s completely overexposed. I mean, believe me, this was no choice in style. I didn’t know what I was doing.
DC Oh, you’re being too modest.
JW No, I’m not being modest. I literally had no idea, because I never went to film school. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to turn on the camera, you know, basically. Somehow my incompetence ended up right in the year 2004 in the contemporary art world.
DC In my conversations with you over the years—
JW Which we can’t print.
DC No, no.
JW I’m kidding because we always gossip in them.
DC If we talked like we normally do, it would be like one of those gruesome Interview magazine things. You know, actors who worked together on some film cracking each other up with behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
JW I love gossiping with you, because we can gossip about books and art and stuff.
DC Okay, one Interview magazine moment. I always tell people the story of when we first met. You invited me to lunch when I was on the Frisk book tour, and you did this really witty thing. You served me raw meat.
JW Oh, but I didn’t know you were a vegetarian.
DC I know, and I was horrified because I didn’t want to ruin the wittiness of the gesture, but I couldn’t eat it. So I saved the day because I told you if it was River Phoenix, I would eat it. He was still alive at the time, of course.
JW (laughter) You were against eating meat, but not against cannibalism. I can understand the difference. That’s the misconception that you must get your whole life because of your work. I mean that was my stupidity. People used to send me dog shit in the old days. Just because I did a scene where someone eats it does not mean that I do. But I am sure that there are people who are scared of you.
DC Not so much anymore, because people take me more seriously now. But yeah, I used to get a lot of people asking me where they could get snuff movies or telling me how I could get snuff movies. Anyway, what I originally wanted to say was that in my conversations with you, it often seems to me that, particularly when it comes to movies, you prefer work that’s serious or dramatic to work that’s comedic. You seem much more picky about work that has comedic intent.
JW It’s harder to be funny. It’s really hard to be funny.
DC Is it because there are more surprises for you in work that’s entirely serious?
JW Maybe because I try to make comedies, it’s harder for me to like one. I always want to laugh when I go to a movie. But I guess I do like serious things better sometimes, and that is probably a misconception that people have of me. They think I like just gross stuff, you know? I am always shocked by that question because to me, yeah, I had those kind of sight gags, certainly. Pink Flamingos, you have to remember, asked the question, What could be illegal anymore? What could bad taste possibly be when everyone thought the revolution was going to happen? Which is such a hilarious idea when we look back on it. But we did think a revolution would happen in a weird way. It’s so amazing, and that’s because of LSD, which, you know, I’m not at all against. But it’s hard for people today to imagine that anyone could have really thought the way we did. I don’t know if that’s answering the question.
DC It’s interesting, so it doesn’t matter. But about comedy and your relationship to the standard comedy film, I’m hoping to draw out a distinction. For instance, it’s hard to imagine that you would be interested in working with, say, Adam Sandler, or even with a comedic genius like Bill Murray.
JW First of all, I have worked with Bill Murray. Bill Murray sings uncredited on the sound track of Polyester.
DC Oops, well, there you go.
JW Adam Sandler I thought was quite good in Punch-Drunk Love.
DC I agree, but would you cast him?
JW I’m never against the idea. I mean Johnny Knoxville is the star in my new movie. I don’t think that’s a surprise, do you?
DC No, but that’s a different kind of comedy. He’s not a quote-unquote comedian.
JW Well, I used to be against hiring comedians, but I did this time. I hired Tracey Ullman for my new movie. I will never say I won’t hire comedians again because she was great and funny and wonderful to work with. I was always afraid that if I hired a comedian, that would mean that I didn’t have enough faith in my own dialogue to be funny. But after this experience I don’t agree with that anymore, because she brought a great timing and dignity to this movie. Before you know that the movie’s funny you know what the tone is going to be just because she’s starring in it. Which I think is important. But it’s true that what you think I’d like and dislike aren’t always quite as predictable as you might think.
DC Well, I’ve learned over the years of knowing you not to say that I like this or that comedy film because you tend to go, “Oh, I hated that.”
JW (laughter) Yeah, I guess the comedies that I have the most trouble with—although some of them are good—are the $50 million Hollywood comedies. It’s really hard to be funny with that much money.
DC Buddy movies.
JW There are some good buddy movies. I like The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant.
DC (laughter) Can you talk about your process as a visual artist? For instance, do you say, Okay, I think I’ll make some art now, and sit down in front of the TV with your camera cocked?
JW First, I’ll have the ideas for like twenty pieces before I even begin to search for the images. And then I look for them. I have a friend, Dennis Dermody, who helps me a lot because he has an incredible film knowledge. I might say, I need fifty movie stars sitting on the toilet, and he knows where they are. But I think my pieces up long before I do them. Then I take the photographs and make the pieces. Most of them don’t make the cut. So let’s say I’m going to try to do thirty pieces, which is more than one show. Maybe half of them will work, and half of that half become something different from what I’d intended. A lot of times the pictures I took for one piece that doesn’t work will end up four years later as part of the narrative of a completely different piece. So I have an endless number of shots available. They’re all stock footage to me now. Most of my time is spent on the floor of my studio going through all those shots and arranging things.
DC You always send out great Christmas cards, which I guess could be described as special versions of your visual art in card form. But this year, you sent out this amazing transparent Christmas tree ornament with a fake dead roach inside. No doubt there are a slew of them for sale on eBay right now.
JW I haven’t looked. Yeah, I wonder who will be the first jerk who tries to sell one.
DC So does this signal a new foray into sculpture for you?
JW I’ll be honest: it did enter my mind to do the Christmas balls a little fancier and bigger and make them a little sturdier and sell them as art, but I decided to go low tech. By the way, eBay people, that Christmas ornament was a very large edition.
C Lastly, I want to ask you about your movie Pecker, whose protagonist is a kind of accidental artist who makes a brief splash in the art world. I’ve seen Pecker referred to as your most autobiographical and personal film. I’ve also seen it referred to as your revenge on the contemporary art scene’s pretensions and cliquishness.
JW It’s really neither of those things. It’s a love letter to the contemporary art world, I think. No one I know in the contemporary art world was at all mad about the movie. I don’t remember any pissed-off art review about it. We got a lot of bad reviews of the movie, but not from the art world. And there’s one big, big difference between Pecker and my own story. Pecker was naive. I started reading Variety when I was 12. I was anything but. New York certainly didn’t come clamoring to see my early work like what happens in Pecker. I wished New York had come and seen my underground movies back when I was showing them in a church in Baltimore. I knew about New York, and when I was 15 I would run away and go see movies at the Filmmakers’ Cooperative. I wasn’t naive about art. And fame happened to Pecker accidentally. It did not happen to me accidentally at all. In fact, it was a long time before anyone outside Baltimore noticed what I was doing, and it was frustrating. At the time, New York was incredibly chauvinistic about the underground art world. Oh, another difference is, unlike Pecker, I didn’t grow up blue collar. I gave Pecker the most wonderful, understanding family. My family was also understanding. So there are certainly autobiographical things in Pecker. I used to push my little sister around, and give out flyers like Pecker. I did take pictures of my friends and turn that into whatever I did. So, that was certainly autobiographical. And by the time I made Pecker, I had been in the art world a while. I was a collector, and I’d had shows. I’d been to a million art shows and artists’ dinners. Pecker didn’t know about the art world when he was discovered. In real life, Pecker would have been an outsider artist, and I certainly was not. As we know, outsider art is an entirely different world than the world of contemporary art.
DC So Pecker is not particularly close to your heart. It’s not your special film, your personal or vulnerable film?
JW Oh yeah, I love it. All my movies are close to my heart. There’s not one scene in any of my movies, including the new one, A Dirty Shame, where you could ask me where that idea came from and I couldn’t tell you about something in my life that caused it.
DC Is that true of your visual art as well?
JW Well, I’m a collector, and I appreciate the vocabulary of contemporary art and enjoy all of that. So, in that way, sure. Honestly, you know the only time I ever relax is when I go to galleries. I go to a lot of them, obsessively, like 40 in one day. So I guess you could say my photographs come from that part of my life. Because that is my real life too, you see.
DC Is your visual art as important to you as your films?
JW Yes, it is, actually. It certainly is a big, big part of my life and very important to me. In a way it’s even more delightful because it’s a newer experience for me.
DC The art crowd is very different from the film crowd.
JW They’re even cuter.
Dennis Cooper is the author of The George Myles Cycle, a sequence of five interconnected novels: Closer (1989), Frisk (1991), Try (1994), Guide (1997) and Period (2000). The cycle is published in the US by Grove Press and has been translated into 14 languages. Cooper’s most recent novel is My Loose Thread (Canongate Books, 2002). He is a contributing editor ofArtforum and editor-in-chief of Little House on the Bowery, a line of books by adventurous young American fiction writers published under the auspices of Akashic Press. Forthcoming in 2005 are his seventh novel, The Sluts, and a book of poetry, A Symphony of Confusion About the People I Killed. Cooper lives in Los Angeles.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee