Searching for a good poppers anecdote: John Waters at the Walker

John Waters at the Walker Art Center examining "Shoestring Potatoes Spilling from a Bag" by Claes Oldenburg.
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
John Waters at the Walker Art Center examining “Shoestring Potatoes Spilling from a Bag” by Claes Oldenburg.

Depending on how you go about this business of journalism, filmmaker, author, and artist John Waters is either terrifically easy or terrifically difficult to interview. He’s been around the press long enough to know they can’t be trusted. They really can’t. They come in to an interview badly researched, they pepper you with a series of ill-considered assumptions, and then they misquote you. I’ve been on both ends of the press, and, at this point, I barely trust myself. I’ll quote myself in conversation and then drag myself aside to accuse myself of paraphrasing for the sake of sensationalism.

There are tools for addressing this. John Waters has one technique that’s rather ingenious: He knows exactly what he wants to say and exactly how he wants to say it, and says it again and again. A well-crafted, amusing anecdote or epigram is likely to get published as you spoke it, while a rambling, off-the-cuff response to a reporter’s question runs the risk of being edited down into something unlike what you would have said, or meant. If you have ever seen the documentary about Quentin Crisp, “Resident Alien,” he does the same thing: You hear him say exactly the same sentence in exactly the same way repeatedly over the course of the film. And of course he does. You don’t get in the quote books by saying something once and then leaving it be. You get in the quote books by repeating the same thing over and over, until people say, “As so and so used to say … .”

If you’re looking for a good quote, John Waters is a delight. He absolutely is. If you’re someone who is thinking about being famous, there is a lot that can be learned from him, because he has crafted a public persona of impish wit, and I feel sure that, in his unguarded moments, he remains impish and witty. In fact, I know this, as years ago I had a long, impromptu conversation with him about zines and matters of taste, and he was a joy. But if you’re a writer who likes unguarded moments, uncrafted quotes, and brand new questions, when John Waters is in full promotional mode — as he was this past Friday, in preparation for an exhibit he curated at the Walker — he can be a bit of a tough nut to crack.

I got him on the subject of poppers, the nickname for a party drug properly called amyl nitrate, which was the subject of one of Waters’ own pieces of art. Poppers usually come in little bottles, often labeled as videotape cleaners, or room deodorants, or leather polish. Amyl nitrate is a vasodilator, which means it relaxes the smooth muscles, which widen the blood vessels, leading to a very short-lived head rush. I am not sure why it’s a party drug, as the whole effect lasts about three minutes and is a bit like standing up too fast, but it’s very disco. It’s also popular as a sex drug, particularly in the gay community, for reasons I won’t detail. I asked Waters about poppers and he told me that the owner of a popular poppers company had contacted him, delighted by his art, and given him a lifetime supply of the stuff. This seemed like a great quote until I attended his “This Filthy World” show that night, which is a sort-of combination college-circuit lecture about cult aesthetics, an autobiographical narrative, and a stand-up comedy routine. There I heard him repeat the exact same anecdote, almost word-for-word.

Oh well. At the very tail end of our discussion of poppers, he said the following, and I haven’t heard it anywhere else, so I’m going to claim it as my very own:

“One summer I had them everywhere and I had this big party for [a] festival. Middle-aged intellectual women from colleges were doing poppers. Everybody was at the party. ‘What are you doing?’ And then there was one who didn’t know what he was doing. He drank it. You could see him in slow motion going [here Waters screams inarticulately] and he ran out of the apartment.”

Of course, poppers are the sort of thing you would discuss with Waters — he’s long been a champion of really trashy culture, and one shouldn’t be surprised that this includes trashy party culture. But there is a risk, as a result, that his curating the Walker will be seen as a gimmick, or as unserious. This risk is compounded by Waters’ puckish sensibility — he has a piece of art that works like a plastic prank, and he has a video instillation room that is, in fact, a put-on, and he has a glass case holding the various invoices for the show itself. And that’s only really an issue when dealing with people who already think art is some sort of joke, and they’re not likely to go to the Walker anyway.

But it should be noted that while Waters enjoys the unusual, prankish, and often subversive wit of contemporary art — and there is a great deal of it — his passion for the subject is genuine. He coauthored a fascinating book on contemporary art with LA critic Bruce Hainley called “Art: A Sex Book,” which was, itself, an act of curation. The two selected pieces of art to share, and then discussed them, and it’s the sort of discussion a writer like me gets jealous about — it’s spontaneous and unexpected, passionate and erudite, and, when it’s funny (and it often is), it’s unrehearsed. It also has Waters discussing the fact that he routinely — perhaps even obsessively — tours  galleries to see art. He hinted at this during his “Filthy World,” talking about how you can come out of a gallery and find yourself staring at a dumpster and thinking that it might be art as well, that the magic of art is that it allows you to see the whole world as art. But this fades, and you have to go back to galleries every so often, to regain this sensibility.

But I wanted the nuts and bolts of how he tours galleries, and so I asked him. I will reprint his response in full, transcribed as best as I can from the recording, because he does not like to be paraphrased and the quote is exactly as I like them — spontaneous and uncrafted.

“I get all the invitations from the galleries I like. It used to be their cards — I’m against email invitations, because if I don’t print them, I’ll never go. Because I throw them all in one box when I get to New York, I arrange them the night before in order of the streets, and people come with me, but we’re only seeing what I’m going to see. ‘Should we look in here?’ ‘No.’ It’s the only way I can do it. You don’t want to come with me, fine, you want to go see that and I’ve already seen it, another day for you. It’s the only way I can keep up. So if you go every three weeks, you see pretty much everything. Not everything, but everything I want to see, or I think I might be interested in. A lot of times you have to believe in galleries, that they show artists, even if you’ve never heard of, that you think might be good, and I think that’s important. It’s even harder in New York now because, not only it used to be Soho but now it’s Chelsea, but then it’s also Midtown, Uptown and now the Lower East Side and the Lower East Side is very spread out and not in one place. So to cover everything gets harder and harder, and the most cutting edge galleries, on purpose, open in the most obscure neighborhoods away from none of those places, in a building with the worst elevator.”

Waters led the media on a preview of his exhibition, and I took a lot of photos, so I shall include a little slide show here, which will give you a glimpse of some of the art Waters has decided should be in his exhibit.

If I were to stop here, with a slide show and a few tasty quotes, I would be doing a disservice. At this moment, I have offered a celebrity piece, but Waters spent an awful lot of time preparing his exhibit, and it’s worth discussing the art he selected. Therefore, tomorrow I shall peek into the actual exhibition, titled “Absentee Landlord,” and focus on introducing you to the artists Waters selected, and the various qualities of the exhibit as a whole — it’s well worth seeing.

In the meanwhile, let me close with another quote I got from Waters that demonstrates, I think, precisely how long art has interested and affected him.

“I have a Warhol Jackie I got in high school that was a hundred bucks,” Waters told me. “So long ago my girlfriend gave it to me.” Here Waters laughs. “So I was into that then. I remember ‘Nude Descending a Staircase.’ I was obsessed by that as a child, so when I would walk down the steps in my mind I pretended I was that person. Because it doesn’t say what sex it is. My parents didn’t know — I would just come down the steps every day and think I was nude and descending a staircase. And that’s how I played. It was freedom for me of some kind. That’s all. It was freedom.”

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