At Large  July 22, 2019  Ed Gunts

John Waters revisits “The Golden Age of Monkey Art”

Christopher Myers

John Waters at home with his "monkey masterpiece."

Filmmaker and art connoisseur John Waters has just two words for would-be art collectors: Monkey Art.

If you aim to invest in today’s overheated art market, he says in a new book, primate paintings are the way to go.

“Only one collectible art movement from the past hasn’t been reinvented, hoarded, or parodied,” he writes. “Want to speculate in the art market? I’m telling you what to buy–monkey art. Yes, paintings by chimpanzees.”

Known as the Prince of Puke and the Pope of Trash, Waters, 73, has developed a loyal following for films such as Hairspray, Serial Mom and Pink Flamingos. He’s also a visual artist, the subject of a 2018 retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019

This year, Waters came out with his ninth book, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, it’s a collection of essays in which he offers opinions and advice about a wide range of subjects. He insists he isn’t being tongue-in-cheek, but sometimes it’s hard to tell. In an essay about the art market, he starts by observing that the current high prices for blue-chip works make it difficult for anyone to become a collector.

“The days of going in that one cutting-edge gallery you thought only you knew about and buying an artwork for under $5,000 by an artist who’s having a second show there after getting his first good review are long over,” he laments.

And that’s what brings him to animal art–specifically, art by chimps, gorillas, orangutans and other primates. (Chimps aren’t the same as monkeys, but both are considered primates, as are humans, according to the Jane Goodall Institute.)

Courtesy The Maryland Zoo

Archival photo of Betsy

Born, raised and still based in Baltimore, Waters calls the second half of the 1950s “the Golden Age of Monkey Art.” His favorite ape artist from the 1950s is Betsy (1951-60), a chimp who lived at the Baltimore Zoo, now the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, and painted with her fingers.

Betsy was so popular that the zoo’s director made her a star on a local TV show he had, This Is Your Zoo, and then on national TV. Waters calls Betsy “the first famous monkey painter” and the First Lady of Primate Painters. “For me,” he says, “there is only one, Betsy, and … she is just waiting to be rediscovered and deified.”

Waters uses Betsy as a starting point to write about all the other primates who became animal artists in the 1950s–largely because other zoos were copying Baltimore’s.

After Betsy came Congo, a male chimp from the London Zoo, billed as the “Cezanne of the Ape World.” Congo, Waters writes, “painted with oil in an abstract way” and even “used an actual paintbrush or two,” while Betsy “much preferred finger paint.”

In 1957, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London mounted a show of these two competing artists, entitled Painting by Chimpanzees. Ultimately, Waters writes, Pablo Picasso bought one of Congo’s paintings, and Joan Miro “swapped two of his paintings for one of Congo’s.”

Other monkey artists emerged, and Waters believes a few of them produced work that holds promise as being collectible. His list includes Achilla the gorilla; Alexander the orangutan from the London Zoo; Sophie the gorilla from the Rotterdam Zoo; Dzeta, a pygmy chimp from an animal farm in Belgium; and Charles the gorilla from the Toronto Zoo.

Betsy
Courtesy The Maryland Zoo

Archival photo of Betsy

Betsy
Courtesy The Maryland Zoo

Archival photo of Betsy

Betsy
Courtesy The Maryland Zoo

Archival photo of Betsy

Betsy
Courtesy The Maryland Zoo

Archival photo of Betsy

Betsy
Courtesy The Maryland Zoo

Archival photo of Betsy

Waters tells collectors what not to buy, too. Leading his list is the work of “all primates who got famous as actors first,” including Cheetah, who appeared in 12 Tarzan movies. He sounds a warning about any paintings purporting to be by J. Fred Muggs from the Today show or Peggy the chimp from “Bedtime for Bonzo,” and photographs supposedly taken by monkeys, because it’s difficult to verify authorship. “Stick to monkey paintings,” he recommends. “That’s where the money is.”

Waters writes that the Maryland Zoo gave him a painting by Betsy for his 70th birthday–his “monkey masterpiece.”  He writes that he has held off telling the world to Buy Betsy until his book was published, because he was worried about violating insider trading laws.

But now that it’s out, “let the stampede begin,” he says. “Betsy buyers–remember, there’s only so much work available, and like Peter Doig’s, her paintings are going to be gobbled up quickly, and once a market is established, the prices will get ridiculous. Betsy’s not around to object.”

And if prices for Betsy’s paintings get too high, he says, collectors shouldn’t despair because there are always options. “Betsy had many imitators,” he reasons, “and those artists will eventually be discovered too.”

About the Author

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is the former architecture critic of The Baltimore Sun.

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