Over the course of history the visual arts in the Western world have gone through any number of transformations. However, it was in the twentieth century when non-representational, or abstract, works began being created that the cry "But is it art?" was heard most often. From Picasso's cubist reconstruction of form, the surrealists' absurdist creations, to Jackson Pollock's spatter-strewn canvases, preconceived notions of what made something a work of art went out the window. No longer would art merely glorify the wealthy and the sacred or be content with creating pretty pictures. The definition of what constituted art was, and is, continually being re-evaluated.
The history of art in the 20th century looks to have been a series of explosions occurring one after another which refused to allow for any sort of complacency on the part of the observer. Just as you were getting used to the power and density of the work of somebody like Pollock, along comes the stripped down work of the Minimalists. In the post-war world of American art it seemed like every time you turned around there was something new either waiting to be discovered or to outrage. This was the world that curator, collector, and sometime patron of the arts, Sam Wagstaff found himself in when, after a spell in advertising in the 1950s, he returned to university and graduated with a degree in art history.
If you've not heard of Sam Wagstaff don't feel too bad; it's doubtful very many people have. However a documentary movie now on DVD, Black White + Grey, from Art House Films, shows the key role he played in helping shape definitions of art. While he did curate some provocative shows and champion the work of some new and influential artists early on in his career, it was how he almost single-handedly legitimized photography as one of the fine arts which makes him most important. Intertwined with his fascination with photography was his relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Wagstaff not only became the largest single promoter of Mapplethorpe's work and ensured the success of his career, he was also his lover.
As the film points out, you couldn't have found two people more different from each other than Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff; the latter was from as aristocratic a family as you can get in America while the former was from a working class neighbourhood in Queens. Wagstaff was from the generation where gay men served as escorts for women who wanted a safe date and were useful when an extra was needed to make up for an odd number of guests at a dinner party. Mapplethorpe was part of the new generation who frequented the bath houses, wore leather, and didn't hide their sexuality. Some of those interviewed for the movie make it clear they felt Mapplethrope was only using Wagstaff for his money and influence in the art world. However, others, like Patti Smith, offer a different perspective.
Smith and Mapplethorpe had set up house together at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City in 1969 and she recalls Mapplethorpe coming home from a party one night all excited about a man he had met (Wagstaff), describing him as everything he ever wanted in a partner. Smith's description of the three of them together belies any of the more catty comments made by others, Though there is no doubt in anybody's mind that Mapplethorpe would never have had the meteoric success he enjoyed without Wagstaff's support, no matter what anybody might have thought of his subject matter, they were all in agreement there was no doubting Mapplethrope's talent. Wagstaff may have given him a leg up, but if he hadn't had the spark of creative genius somewhere inside of him he'd have never been able to establish himself as one of the pre-eminent photographers of his time.
While Wagstaff had never been short of money, it was only in 1973 with the death of his mother that he inherited sufficient to be considered truly wealthy. It was at this time he began his obsessive collecting of photographs, a collection he was later to sell to the Getty Museum for millions of dollars. Smith describes the three of them going out hunting for photographs and how Wagstaff would literally fill brown paper shopping bags with them. As his collecting grew more refined he started attending auctions in both New York and London, buying anything from job lots to single rarities. There doesn't seem to be any discernible pattern to his purchases as he would buy everything from portraits and landscapes, to photographs of those suffering from medical abnormalities.
In the special feature included with film, in a speech Wagstaff gave at a symposium on art at the Corcoran Museum, he talks about how being from the world of sculpture and paintings he had never considered photography to be in the same league artistically. However when you think about the technology involved with early photography – people having to hold poses for a period of time to allow the image to be etched onto a plate – and you look at some of the subject matter of the items he collected, you realize they were as carefully composed as any painting.
There's one shot in particular that brings that point home, an image of a group of young men gathered around a dock at various stages of going into and coming out of the water. If it had been taken recently we would have just considered it a candid snapshot that anybody could have taken. However, because of the time period it meant that each individual had to be carefully positioned and posed by the photographer to achieve the effect he was after. Art is about intent as much as anything else, and what Wagstaff was able to show with images like this one was the intent to create is just as viable in photography as in any other form of the visual arts.
Some may not remember, or even care, but one of the horrors of the 1980s was reading the obituaries and watching the death toll from AIDS rise. With his connections and money Wagstaff was able to keep the particulars of his illness secret until he died in 1987. Mapplethorpe, always the more open of the two, made no secret of what it was that eventually killed him in 1989. In fact the Mapplethorpe Foundation, founded after the artist's death, splits its funding between photographers and AIDS research. However, as the movie makes clear, their true legacy is the important role each man had in establishing photography in North America as more than just the poor cousin of painting and sculpture. While the movie does touch upon the more sensationalistic aspects of their relationship, and what it meant to Wagstaff personally in regard to the way he dealt with his sexuality, the major focus remains on their contributions to the world of art.
One of those interviewed in the movie comments on how, at one time, curators were hired more for their artistic abilities than their academic credentials. With the proliferation of new modes of expression in the '60s and '70s – from happenings, installations, to video and performance art – it took somebody with the eye of an artist to be able to "see" what was being attempted and to assess its validity. Sam Wagstaff was one of that breed of curators. As he had so many times earlier in his career, he saw something in both Robert Mapplethorpe and the medium he worked in that convinced him of their importance. Black White + Grey does a remarkable job of not only telling the story of their relationship, but in making sure that Wagstaff is given his due place in the history of modern art. His notorious protégé's name might be more well known, but Wagstaff built the foundation upon which Mapplethorpe and other photographers have since been able to erect careers.