Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Black + White + Grey: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe

In the last couple weeks I've watched, and re-watched, James Crump's excellent documentary on photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and his lover and patron, the wealthy New York photography (and later silverware) collector Sam Wagstaff. It's called Black + White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff + Robert Mapplethorpe. You can visit the documentary's website here. You'll find information about the film and an enticing trailer to boot.

Robert Mapplethorpe was one of many provocative artists of his day (1970s' through 1980s') Although Mapplethorpe shot celebrity portraits and flower studies, he's probably remembered most for his shocking sex pictures. It's these photos that caused museum censorship and attempted sanctions on freedom of expression from the United States Senate. These efforts were led by right-wing Senator Jesse Helms. At issue was Mapplethorpe's 'Perfect Moment' exhibit, which was shown in several states after his death from AIDS-related complications on March 9, 1989, on the eleventh floor of Deaconess Hospital in Boston.

Watching Crump's documentary and reading biographer Patricia Morrisroe's excellent Mapplethorpe: A Biography, it became apparent to me that Sam Wagstaff was the power behind the throne of Mapplethorpe's rise to prominence in the international art scene. He is now remembered as a relatively minor figure, though chances are Mapplethorpe's career likely wouldn't have amounted to spit in a bucket without Wagstaff's influence.

He connected Mapplethorpe with several art dealers and gallery owners, and bought Mapplethorpe an apartment. Mapplethorpe had previously been living in squalor at the Chelsea Hotel with Patti Smith.

Sam Wagstaff was born to a wealthy New York family on Nov. 4, 1921. After attending upper-class prep schools, Wagstaff served in the United States Navy during the Second World War. After leaving the Navy, he entered the advertising industry in NYC. However, unsatisfied by the advertising world, which he considered phony and shallow, Wagstaff made a mid-life career change and returned to school to study the arts.

After learning his new vocation, Wagstaff had a string of museum curatorships across the country. He eventually returned to New York, and in the early 1970s, when Wagstaff was in his mid-fifties, and Mapplethorpe in his early twenties, the two men met. Wagstaff had a history of taking an interest in the work of young male artists. Probably because he often had sexual attractions to many of these men; this ended up working in Mapplethorpe's favour, as he was looking to be 'spoiled,' and Wagstaff wanted somebody he could spoil and play the role of benefactor with.

Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff's relationship is lovingly recounted in the Crump documentary. He makes liberal use of a set of photographs that show the two men in an apartment, clowning around and obviously in good spirits. Masters of their respective universes, with Wagstaff at the height of his influence, and Mapplethorpe's star on the ascendant.

Although the romantic relationship ended, a special bond between the wealthy collector and the agent provocateur artist remained. This is what I like most about Black + White + Gray. It gives a sense of the magic that existed in Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe's creative and emotional bond with each other. The documentary is worth loving for that reason alone.

However, all was not to remain ideal. Mapplethorpe, with his well-documented unquenchable thirst for sex, eventually contracted HIV, as did many in the New York art world. Wagstaff fell ill with HIV as well, and his last day is heartbreakingly recounted in Morrisroe's Mapplethorpe: A Biography. By the time he died, Wagstaff had been sharing his apartment with a man named Jim Nelson for eleven years. Nelson, orginally from Texas, was a makeup artist who was introduced to Wagstaff by Mapplethorpe. He ended up doting on the older man, and referred to him as, "my Sammi."

From pgs. 316 to 317 of Morrisroe's biography:

"At eleven P.M. Mapplethorpe left (Wagstaff's) apartment with Ehrenkranz and Jefferson, and Nelson and the night nurse maintained the vigil. For the last eleven years Wagstaff had been Nelson's family, and while the relationship had been far from ideal, it had provided Nelson with an illusion of happiness. He lived in a Manhattan penthouse with a wealthy lover who resembled a movie star. It was everything the orphan from Texas could have hoped for, and now it was all coming to an end. Nelson did not want to let go, so he held the dying man in his arms for the next hour.

When Wagstaff died a little after midnight on January 14, 1987, Nelson was still holding on for dear life."

Nelson himself was HIV positive at the time of Wagstaff's death, and suffering from Kaposi's Sarcoma lesions, a rare type of cancer known to afflict HIV / AIDS patients. It struck me as the most tragic of all possible ends for such a brilliant human being. Wagstaff had made his mark by collecting photographs from around the world, in a way serving notice to art collectors and dealers that photography was a serious art, which wasn't a common idea when Wagstaff began acquiring his collection, which he sold before his death for some $4.5 million.

For me, the greatest moment in Crump's documentary comes from Wagstaff himself. Speaking at an art symposium, likely sometime in the late 1960s, Wagstaff tells his audience,"I have a palmist in New York who says, 'why do you think you have to tell all?' Well, you don't."

'All' can never be known about anyone, least of all someone as complicated and multi-faceted as Wagstaff. But the Crump documentary and Morrisroe book come pretty damn close.

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