NEW YORK — With the screening of “Black, White + Gray” at the Tribeca Film Festival on Tuesday, James Crump hopes to draw back the curtain on one of the art world’s more enigmatic figures, Sam Wagstaff.
Wagstaff was a creative force as a curator-turned-collector, who, in the early Seventies, was among the first to buy photographs — long before it was considered legitimate art — and helped usher in unproven talent. He also became photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s lover.
Wagstaff’s collection of more than 2,500 masterworks from the 19th and 20th centuries, including pieces from Felix Nadar and Gustave Le Gray, was sold in 1984 to the J. Paul Getty Museum for the then-princely sum of $5 million. He also wasn’t above buying work from unknown photographers.
“I always wanted Sam’s story to be told — he deserved to have his story told,” Crump said in an interview.
When Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe met at a Manhattan party in the summer of 1972, Wagstaff was curator of Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and Mapplethorpe was making beaded jewelry and living in a loft near the Chelsea Hotel with his former Pratt Institute classmate Patti Smith. Undeterred by their age difference — Wagstaff was 51 and Mapplethorpe was 26 — they were soon living together even though a shared birth date was one of the few things they had in common. Each died of AIDS, Wagstaff in 1987 and Mapplethorpe in 1989.
Aristocratic and magnetic, the Yale-educated Wagstaff was what author Dominick Dunne describes in the film as “the New York deb’s delight.” So “starchy” was his background, that he told Getty curator Gordon Baldwin more than once that his family owned the farms where the Metropolitan Museum of Art stands. Raised on Central Park South, Wagstaff attended prep school at Hotchkiss with Dean Witter, co-founder of Dean Witter & Co., and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldridge; served in World War II as a Navy ensign, and started an advertising career at Benton & Bowles. He eventually abandoned the corporate life and set out to study art history at New York University to jump-start his art career. Mapplethorpe was markedly less studious — a native of Floral Park, Queens, who ran with a racier and often drug-fueled crowd.
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“By the time he got into photography, Sam was looking for wonderment to try to lose himself in a picture,” Crump said. “He wanted to experience a kind of ecstasy before a painting. That sensuality crossed over into his personal life and that’s what makes his story compelling.”
A student of art historian Richard Offner, Wagstaff was an early champion of artists such as Tony Smith, Richard Tuttle, Agnes Martin, Michael Heizer, Jackson Pollack, James Lee Byars, Ray Johnson and Andy Warhol. The documentary’s title borrows from the minimalist exhibition by the same name that Wagstaff staged at the Wadsworth in the early Sixties, which got national attention and may have been the inspiration for Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. A believer in minimalism, Wagstaff also was swift to recognize how art, fashion, music and club life were on a collision course.
“Black, White + Gray,” narrated by Joan Juliet Buck with cameos by Smith, Dunne and others, explores Wagstaff’s life and how it was transformed by his bond with Mapplethorpe. Some of those who knew Wagstaff had tried to discourage Crump from pursuing the project about a highly compartmentalized man. “They told me, ‘You’re never going to get the story. Sam was not someone you could know.'”
But Crump pressed ahead, quizzing artists, collectors, auctioneers and friends who knew Wagstaff in different decades of his life and eventually created “a holographic portrait.”
“Everyone talked about how amazing his eye was and how he was always ahead of the curve,” Crump said. “Sam was a risk-taker par excellence — the photography he selected was based on intuition, emotion and gut instinct and that crossed over into his personal life.”
One of Wagstaff’s curatorial stunts provided a jaw-dropping aerial image in the film. At the Detroit Institute of Art, his first stop after leaving the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Wagstaff commissioned Heizer to drag a 30-ton concrete block back and forth across the museum’s lawn in “Dragged Mass Geometric.”
A multimillion-dollar family inheritance enabled Wagstaff to leave an indelible mark on the art world as a collector. He also clued in Mapplethorpe to George Platt Lynes’ homoerotic photographs, which appeared to leave an indelible impression.
Crump insisted there is more to his film than the Wagstaff-Mapplethorpe connection. “It’s about how far we’ve come in the art world,” he said. “I think Robert and Sam would be amused. When they were in photography, there was not the hyperbolic value, nor did they enjoy the worldwide attention. A lot of collectors today don’t have the passion Sam did.”