The sexiest part of the art world these days is the art market. This isn’t new but what’s surprising about the sexiness of art speculation and investment is, firstly, just what a popular topic of discussion and study it’s become and, secondly, the kinds of heroes that are emerging as a result. This is the invisible backdrop of James Crump’s documentary of Sam Wagstaff, Black White and Gray.
If you’ve never heard of Wagstaff, you’ve certainly heard of the man whose career he nurtured: Robert Mapplethorpe. He was Wagstaff’s most visible contribution to the field of art, though not, as Crump argues in his subtle, delicate and ultimately problematic film, his most significant.
The documentary is most interesting in parsing the less tangible parts of Wagstaff’s life: the romances, the juicy gossip, the drives and enthusiasms that lie behind the procession of characters, dates and places.
Wagstaff made his name as a curator in the 1960s, working first at the prestigious Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford (the oldest art museum in the US) then at the Detroit Institute of Art. He championed the more difficult trends in avant-garde art (like minimalism and abstract expressionism). A multimillion dollar inheritance from his deceased mother allowed him to pursue collecting full-time.
He loved photography and amassed the largest, most varied private collection in America. He was enthusiastic and aggressive about his spending habits and almost single-handedly breathed life, activity and cachet into the previously staid photography market. This is where the film is at its oddest. Usually, documentaries praise their subjects for extraordinary achievement, but a great many of Wagstaff’s unique achievements amount to spending wads of cash — on art, yes, and always according to a discerning taste. Still, it seems strange to hear auctioneers and dealers intone on the avant-garde daring and singular genius of spending $30,000.
Wagstaff was just as enthusiastic and aggressive when it came to his lovers, the most famous (and most fruitful) of whom was Mapplethorpe. Opposites attract: Wagstaff was a moneyed WASP, Mapplethorpe was a working-class kid from Queens. Wagstaff was rigid and self-contained, Mapplethorpe was a relative libertine. When they met, Wagstaff was 51, a seasoned veteran of the New York art scene, and Mapplethorpe was 26, just out of art school. Wagstaff bought Mapplethorpe his first camera, his first studio and, if Crump’s film is to be believed, orchestrated his entire career, from the early Polaroids to the men hanging upside-down by their balls.
Patti Smith sees tenderness and love in the pairing of Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe. Others are more blunt: Mapplethorpe saw a hunky pile of influence and cash and Wagstaff saw a cute bit of trade whom he could parade through the leather bars.
Crump makes no judgment and maintains an even-handedness throughout, as Wagstaff embraces the sexual hedonism first of post gay-lib New York, then the druggy hedonism of the ’80s and, finally, succumbing to AIDS.
Crump narrates all of this with grace and equanimity and never indulges in the tawdry cautionary tale genre. Still, there are times when I would gladly have swapped some equanimity for an opinion or two.
Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe’s relationship could have been a documentary in itself but only forms a small part of Black White and Gray — therein lies the film’s flaw. The major achievement of any collector boils down to shopping. So the film’s central thesis, that Wagstaff is some kind of major unsung cultural hero, doesn’t quite stick. Despite the poor choice of focus, though, Black White and Gray remains carefully crafted and subtly told — one of the more interesting documents of the American art world in the late 20th century.