|Sam Wagstaff played many roles in his life - collector, mentor, patron, and advocate of photography as art.|
Though primarily remembered for his relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Philip Gefter's biography shows Sam Wagstaff was so much more.
Sam Wagstaff played many roles in his 66 years on planet Earth. During the course of his life he evolved from private school boy in Majorca, to a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War, to advertising executive, museum curator and beyond.
Born into New York high society (the Wagstaff family once owned the land that would become Central Park), he began life with unique advantages. However, much of Wagstaff's childhood was spent apart from a mother he loved. She worked behind the scenes to ensure Sam's place in the Social Register of the time while her son spent his formative years attending boarding school on another continent.
As with most young men of his class, Wagstaff served in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War. Upon his return, he went into a career in advertising. As a gay man he learned how to hide his true nature throughout the 1940s' and 50s'. After he became bored of the advertising world, Wagstaff did a surprise about face and returned to school at 36 to study art history.
During the 1960s' Wagstaff's life took a more unconventional turn. In keeping with the 'Be Here Now' spirit of the later part of that decade he took risks as a curator and began to change his personal style. The 1964 'Black, White, and Gray' exhibition Wagstaff organized at the Wadsworth Atheneum was the first exhibit of minimalist art in the United States. In 1969 he attended Woodstock with an artist friend - by this time Sam the patrician had long hair and enjoyed smoking pot. Then, in March of 1971 during a stint at the Detroit Institute of Art, he gave the go ahead for Michael Heizer's Dragged Mass Displacement. The piece involved a giant slab of granite being dragged back and forth across the museum's front lawn.
The granite failed to sink into the lawn because of the soil's high clay content. What it did succeed in doing was pissing off the museum's trustees, which led to Wagstaff's resignation. Upon his return to New York, unsure of the next step he would take in life, Wagstaff was looking for a boyfriend. According to friends, he was looking for, "someone to spoil."
That someone was Robert Mapplethorpe, a young artist living at the Chelsea Hotel with poet (later rock star) Patti Smith. Mapplethorpe had been creating homoerotic art pieces and collages. This, and his physical attractiveness was widely acknowledged. Robert's ease with his own body probably struck a cord with Wagstaff. Mapplethorpe was not yet known for his provocative photos - which earned him notoriety - much less the flower pictures that made him money.
Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe became close after their first meeting. Wagstaff nicknamed Mapplethorpe his, "shy pornographer." In later years he would refer to Mapplethorpe in correspondence as his 'Muffin' or 'Wumper.'
In Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff found his counterpoint. The younger man's sensuality, his art, and way of being were a serious draw for the older man. As Gefter writes, "With Robert, the intellectual and the artistic, the romantic and the sexual forces all came together almost as naturally as breathing — and all at once."
Shortly after meeting Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Wagstaff would have an 'Aha!' moment about photography after seeing The Flatiron by Edward Steichen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1973. Along with supporting Mapplethorpe financially and with help from his art world contacts, Wagstaff began his own photography collection that he would sell a decade later to the Getty Museum. His aesthetic for collecting sexy, intellectual photographs is described in some detail in Gefter's book.
Wagstaff's letters, excerpts of which appear in the book, shed light on his capacity for intimacy and desire to be closer to Mapplethorpe. From a letter Wagstaff mailed in 1974:
"I hope we can keep finding new ways to be closer. There must be lots of joys of being closer that we haven't found yet. I hope you're hopeful and not discouraged about us."
As Sam's reputation as a collector with a large body of knowledge about the medium grew, so too did Mapplethorpe's reputation as a provocative artist. By 1983, Sam had grown bored of collecting photos. From Gefter's biography:
"No more revealing example of this can be found than in (Wagstaff's) relationship with Robert, for him the personification of photographic art making and through whom Sam had gotten as close as he would ever become to being an artist himself. This relationship glued him to photography, yet Robert was less and less glued to Sam...
Sam sent Robert a card on which he taped the printed word "YIPPEE" in bold letters emblazoned across the top and wrote, "My Muffin is getting very, very fame-iss. Monkey hugs and lots of love, Sam."
The sale of Sam's photography collection to the Getty Museum opened a new chapter in his life as a collector — this time the prized object would be American Silverware. Sam would collect silverware until he died of AIDS on January 14, 1987.
Before Wagstaff died, he worked with Artforum's Editor-in-Chief Ingrid Sischy to run a 6-page feature on his cats. Ever mischievous, Wagstaff was intent on sending the art world a message before his death.
"He may have felt compelled to represent the plight of cats in photography as an underappreciated genre, yet he derived gleeful pleasure from taunting an art world that took itself so seriously with a subject thought to be so clichéd, in a publication they considered a kind of Bible. He wanted to show them they were wrong while getting something of the last laugh."
What struck me after finishing Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe was Sam Wagstaff's ability to continuously evolve as a person. From appreciating and collecting art, to being a behind-the-scenes champion of so many artists, his passion was evident in most everything he touched. Wagstaff's capacity for intimacy and mischievous nature also recur throughout this excellent biography.
Above and beyond these traits, this reader was left with a sense of Sam Wagstaff's commitment to 'Being Here Now' and living in real time. The dumb, simply being there sensual pleasure of experience is something he cherished. I can't help but feel that he was onto something.