Thursday, May 17, 2007

Black White + Gray


Although no longer impressed with his work, I was once a bit of a Mapplethorpe fan. In 1988 I asked an art-collector friend how one got to have a career like his. My friend replied, "You date Sam Wagstaff." The next question, of course, is "Who is Sam Wagstaff?" In Black White + Gray, James Crump gives an answer. The documentary gives a precis of Wagstaff's career, from advertising executive to influential museum curator to photography and silver collector. Although Wagstaff curated important shows at the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Detroit Institute of Arts and was an early champion of such artists as Tony Smith, Ray Johnson and Michael Heizer, it was as a photography collector that he left his lasting mark. Inheriting several million dollars from his mother in 1973, he began buying 19th and early 20th century photographs with a zeal unheard of in the art market. It is at this point that the film runs into a bit of intellectual trouble. Conflating market value with critical reception, the film makes it sound as if nobody had ever really cared about photography until Wagstaff came along. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many people contributed to the establishment of photography as an art form. One of the most significant was John Szarkowski, who curated the MoMA's collection from 1962-1991. During the 60's and 70's he launched the careers of Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and William Eggleston, each one of whom is a more significant artist than Mapplethorpe. By bidding previously unheard of sums, Wagstaff raised the auction price of photography, paving the way for six and seven figure bids for vintage and contemporary photographic work. Oddly, although the film elides this critical/monetary distinction, the press kit more honestly states "Photography had yet to be recognized for it's commodity value and Wagstaff quickly became the most influential collector of the period." That aside, the film presents a decent portrait of Wagstaff's relationship to Mapplethorpe and Mapplethorpe's relationship to Patti Smith, the latter providing much of the commentary. One of the more entertaining aspects of the film is the way it illustrates the symbiotic relationship between Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe and how the influence of each permeated the work and life of the other. As with Fred and Ginger, Sam gave Robert class and Robert gave Sam sex. One cannot look at the images in Wagstaff's photography collection without realizing the impact they had on Mapplethorpe's style and one can't look at the crotch-level self-portraits Wagstaff shot without thinking of the liberalizing effect Mapplethorpe had on his sexuality. However, as Martin Amis's film director character, John Self noted and as Wagstaff proved, money is often the real sex. For a true erotic thrill, one needs to wait till near the end of the film for the pulse-quickening vision of Wagstaff's immaculate, white, Fifth Avenue, penthouse apartment. Now there's a property worth dropping your pants for.

Black White + Gray [76 min.]
June 13, 7:15pm Harvard Exit
June 14, 4:15pm Egyptian


  1. Robert Mapplethorpe possessed an abundance of that attribute most highly prized in the creative arts, originality.

  2. I should also point out that I went to the trouble of responding to each of Clint's e-mails personally, rather than simply ignoring select comments as others have done on this web site more than a few times (eat your vegetables damnit!), and even went to bat for him, urging Mike to consider posting Clint's alternative POV as a separate entry.