Two men, one portrait. Curator/collector Sam Wagstaff and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe shared such a close relationship that even 20 years after their deaths it's difficult to distinguish where one ended and the other began, and who, exactly, gained what from the other. Was Wagstaff a moneyed, blue-blooded Svengali who manipulated an impressionable, working-class Trilby 25 years his junior? Or was Mapplethorpe a fledgling vampire who took as much as he could from his older, enthralled patron, including the darkly erotic aesthetic vision that made him famous? James Crump's double portrait is less an attempt to fully understand the relationship between these inextricably linked agents provocateurs of the New York art scene than a largely successful attempt to rescue Wagstaff from the obscurity into which he sank after his 1987 death. It's also an interesting survey of the photography market of the 1970s that Wagstaff, perhaps more than anyone else, helped to revolutionize.
Wagstaff was everything Mapplethorpe wasn't: The product of a starchy Park Avenue upbringing supervised by a doting Polish emigre mother, Wagstaff's early life — Hotchkiss, debutante balls, a World War II stint in the Navy — was very different from the one he eventually shared with Mapplethorpe. Wagstaff wound up working — unhappily — for renowned ad agency Benton and Bowles until he decided to chuck it all and study art history at New York University. He also managed to come to terms with his homosexuality, which he concealed during the closeted 1950s. By the mid-'60s, Wagstaff was an important museum curator, organizing the last important exhibit of abstract expressionism and a pioneering collection of minimalist works, while wholeheartedly embracing the era's sex-and-drugs hedonism. By the decade's end, Wagstaff's original disdain for photography suddenly became something approaching a mania for the art form: He began collecting at a furious pace — poet/musician Patti Smith recalls him coming home from a day's shopping to his penthouse at No. 1 Fifth Avenue hauling paper sacks stuffed with hundreds of tintypes, gravures and snapshots by unknown photographers. Wagstaff's public appearances on The Dick Cavett Show and the prices he was willing to pay at auction helped change the art establishment's attitude toward the medium and jump-start the photography market. By the mid-'70s, he had amassed what is still widely considered the most important collection of 19th- and 20th-century prints.
Wagstaff met Mapplethorpe while the struggling, Queens-born artist was a student at New York's Pratt Institute, living with then-unknown punk poetess Patti Smith and crafting elaborate jewelry. Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe became lovers, and while Mapplethorpe introduced Wagstaff to the darker corners of New York City's gay underworld, Wagstaff introduced Mapplethorpe to all the right people. Exactly how much Mapplethorpe's career owed to Wagstaff's influence is uncontroversial; how much of his aesthetic, particularly the darkness and overt eroticism already evident in Wagstaff's collection, is open to debate. (Set alongside several of Mapplethorpe's famous nudes, photos by the midcentury erotic photographer George Platt Lynes, whom Wagstaff collected and Mapplethorpe no doubt studied, make for a revealing juxtaposition.) In addition to copious prints taken from Wagstaff's incredible collection, Crump's film is filled with fascinating interviews with friends, acquaintances and critics of both men. Few, save Smith, have much good to say about Mapplethorpe's relationship with his older lover. Dominick Dunne refers to Wagstaff as Mapplethorpe's "sugardaddy," collector and gallery owner Holly Solomon pointedly describes Mapplethorpe as "an artist who could manipulate," and critic Eugenia Parry says she never witnessed a kindness from Mapplethorpe toward Sam, and that the photographer cared about no one but himself. Whatever the case, Crump's film makes it clear that this strange symbiosis continues long after both men died of AIDS in the late 1980s. Where Mapplethorpe’s name once needed to be linked to Wagstaff’s in order to become known, Wagstaff’s must now be mentioned in the same breath as Mapplethorpe’s to be remembered. leave a comment --Ken Fox