Over the weekend I caught a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival of Black White + Gray , a debut documentary by James Crump about Sam Wagstaff, the wealthy curator and photo collector who was mentor and lover to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Wagstaff was 65 when he died of AIDS in 1987, two years before the epidemic took Mapplethorpe.
In the years since then his name has gone into eclipse, though if you were anywhere near the New York artworld in the 1970s and ’80s you were probably aware of Wagstaff, his photo collection — he sold it to the Getty in the early ’80s for $5 million, a head turning sum at the time — and his role in shaping Mapplethorpe’s taste, guiding him into society and promoting his work. In return Mapplethorpe, who was 21 years younger, conducted Wagstaff, who had been miserably closeted in an earlier part of his life, ever deeper into the New York leather scene.
The film is a decent introduction to an enigmatic man. (Best moments: the interview segments with the rock star Patti Smith, who lived with Mapplethorpe for years and was close to both men, and who comes off as one of the most lovable people in the universe.) Wagstaff was the good looking son of wealthy parents who emerged from Hotchkiss, Yale and the wartime Navy on the road to the kind of success that would have made him miserable if he had stayed with it. He tried for a few years to work in advertising but hated it, decided instead to pursue an art history degree and ended up in the 60s as a curator of up-to-the-minute art, first at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn. and then at the Detroit Institute of Art. Over the years he was an early champion of Warhol, Agnes Martin, Tony Smith, Richard Tuttle and Michael Heizer.
In the ’60s Wagstaff let loose and in the ’70s, after he inherited his mother’s millions, left the museum world and met Mapplethorpe, he let looser. He had the time and money to indulge his passion for photography, which was not the focus of many serious art collections when he started buying in 1973. Though Mapplethorpe had attended art school, his association with Wagstaff was an education on a much higher level. For one, I’ve always assumed it was Wagstaff who directed Mapplethorpe to look at the classically composed, sharply lit nudes of George Platt Lynes, which are one obvious influence for Mapplethorpe’s shrewd mixture of conservative form and radical content..
I’ve also assumed — the film doesn’t shed much light on this — that it was Wagstaff who encouraged Mapplethorpe to make both his S/M pictures and his drop dead elegant (but strictly G-rated) portraits and still lifes. It was an aesthetic strategy that was also a marketing scheme. Collectors who wouldn’t be caught dead hanging a picture of some guy in bondage gear could show off their Mapplethorpe tulip shot and still enjoy the cultural cachet of owning something by that famously out there photographer. I’m betting that Mapplethorpe sold many more of those flower pictures than he did of anything from his “black portfolio”, but the fetishy pictures gave the more presentable things a contact high that made them more desirable. (Means marketable.) Wagstaff, who went from closeted to hedonistic, knew something about the psychology of wealthy collectors, and about their desire sometimes to tiptoe right up the edge of their own limits. The difference with him is that he had broken right on past them.