Robert Mapplethorpe might never have stuck a whip up someone’s butt and taken a photo if it weren’t for Sam Wagstaff. Remembered, if at all, as lover and mentor of the notorious photographer, Wagstaff contributed a great deal more to the story of contemporary art. Filmmaker James Crump aims to restore his legacy in Black White + Gray, a modest chronicle of an audacious life.
When the dynamic duo first met in the early 1970s, Mapplethorpe was up to little more than bumming around with Patti Smith and making beaded jewelry. Twice his age, Wagstaff was already an accomplished society fixture, bon vivant, World War II veteran, ex-adman, curator, collector, and burgeoning libertine. Contact with Mapplethorpe electrified his taste for sexual adventure as well as his passion for the art of photography. Fired by the heat of abundant money, this alchemic merging of passions forged a new art for Mapplethorpe and new enthusiasms for his patron, who rushed headlong into the decadent pleasures of the gay S&M underworld at the same time he amassed a legendary collection of photography.
“His hair got longer and his jeans got tighter,” remembers writer John Richardson of Wagstaff at this moment. Crump finds his most fertile material when examining Wagstaff’s imagination and idiosyncrasies, as opposed to the gossip and psychodrama of his relationship with the famously manipulative Mapplethorpe. Everyone (Patti Smith, Dominick Dunne, assorted gallerists and curators) recollects Wagstaff’s extraordinary beauty, charm, intelligence, and prescient views on art. He was an early, influential advocate of Tony Smith, Agnes Martin, and Ray Johnson, and one of the first to appreciate the terrible beauty of medical photography. Black White + Gray takes its title from a pioneering exhibition of Minimalism organized by Wagstaff at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in the early 1960s.
Before he died of AIDS in 1987, Wagstaff sold his collection of photographs to the Getty for the unprecedented sum of five million dollars—in the ballpark of what a single photo by an art-world superstar currently fetches at auction—before embarking on an obsessive pursuit of American silver. Wagstaff’s mystifying final project exemplifies his Warholian blurring of high and low, uptown and down, mainstream and underground. And it proved, of course, a canny financial endeavor.