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John Waters on Cy Twombly
March 30, 2009


Letter of Resignation XXXI by Cy Twombly, 1967, © Cy Twombly

"You make me feel so respectable," writer and filmmaker John Waters wryly remarked after a rousing welcome to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, then added, "We'll see what we can do about it."

Baltimore-native Waters, best known for his films Hairspray and Pink Flamingos, spoke, if not performed, at the McEvoy Auditorium, as the inaugural speaker in the second annual American Pictures Distinguished Lecture Series. For one hour on Saturday afternoon, Waters shared his interpretation of Cy Twombly's Letter of Resignation. From the word go, Waters had the SRO audience captivated as he "narrated" the thirty-eight separate drawings that make up this work. At times, Waters had us in stitches, relating slightly off-color stories, and using words not found in museum labels. Often in strong language, he created a persona, or voice for the letter writer: a disgruntled worker who is drafting (and re-drafting) his letter of resignation. By the thirty-eighth draft, he's just about there.

Getting into his character's head was pretty scary stuff, as the soon-to-be-unemployed worker rants about his job, colleagues, boss, "the nosy cleaning crew," and the "cheapskate Christmas bonus" he received. But, according to Waters, as we move forward, the author of the letter gets "clearer and clearer."

Waters collects Twombly's art and boasts of owning eighty-one books on the man best known for his inventive, yet illegible handwriting—the hallmark of his work. Depending on your politics, Twombly's work either looks like indecipherable hieroglyphs, or, if you share Waters's vision, the artist's hidden language, "the poetics of the Palmer method," speaks volumes. If you're slightly skeptical about Twombly's place in the canon, then you're not alone. Waters's longtime housekeeper Rosa is not a fan, and apparently told Waters, "They have the nerve to put this in a book."

Art collecting for Waters began when he was nine years old and bought some Miró cards in the gift shop at the Baltimore Museum of Art. When he showed them to his friends and they all hated it, he said, "Wow," and began to understand the power of art. I think that early experience helped him to shape his feelings on modern art in general, and Twombly in particular. "Doesn't it make you mad? It should. It's modern art's job to destroy everything that came before it," Waters said. He then praised Twombly for his artistic scribbles, handwriting he referred to as "both violent and erotic."

Waters, who keeps the Letters of Resignation catalogue by his bed, says that Twombly created "such confident work it makes people mad." To detractors not fond of the work, Waters offered this retort, "This kind of contemporary art hates you too, and you deserve it."

During the Q & A that followed, Waters told us that he writes by hand. "The art of writing is something I do everyday. As I get older I can't read my own handwriting." How very Twombly of him.

Check out the other speakers in the series. Up next, Jamaica Kincaid speaks about Edward Lamson Henry's Kept In on April 11.

Posted by Howard on March 30, 2009 in Lectures on American Art


Wow... I would love to see a video/hear a recording of this if it exists! I'm a huge John Waters fan and spent my childhood watching Hairspray and Crybaby almost every week with my dad. Then I found his other work... and the love grew more nuanced, but no less deep.

Amazing enough, Cy Twombly never really managed to grab my attention. As the Artchive puts it: "ILLUSTRIOUS AND UNKNOWN: this was what Degas aspired to be, and what Cy Twombly has become."

Unfortunately, we were unable to video or record Waters' talk. Whenever we can we record talks and symposia here at the museum. Sometimes, however, we are unable to for legal or other reasons.

Nina, I think you will just have to move back to DC!! -grin

I was unable to hear it too, so if any video does exist then I would love the link!

Great post! Thanks for sharing both the painting and the photo. Brilliant.

I'd like to share my Cy Twombly "artistic epiphany" with you!

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