The Man Who Made Mapplethorpe

Philip Gefter’s Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, his new biography of the curator Sam Wagstaff, reveals how Wagstaff’s romantic relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe aided the latter’s rise as a highly celebrated and controversial photographer in the 1970s and ’80s. In a preview of his book, Gefter describes their meeting this way:

In 1972, when he was a 50-year-old man about town, he met and fell in love with Mapplethorpe, a struggling artist half his age. Mapplethorpe, who attended Pratt Institute, a pre-eminent art school, had gotten his cultural education at Max’s Kansas City and the Chelsea Hotel but had not yet claimed photography as his medium. He was still making collages and assemblages with found photographs from physique magazines and Polaroid self-portraits, often naked. Wagstaff thought they were in keeping with the conceptual work being done in that period, but the unapologetic homoerotic component was completely new.

Fan Zhong’s review of the biography sketches a telling scene of what Wagstaff did for Mapplethorpe:

On February 5, 1977, a floppy-haired boy from Queens named Robert Mapplethorpe truly arrived. Following the opening of the 30-year-old photographer’s New York exhibitions at Holly Solomon’s venerable SoHo gallery, where he showed refined studies of flowers, and at the Chelsea alternative art space the Kitchen, where he showed refined studies of S&M acts, 200 guests in black tie filled One Fifth, a stylish Art Deco restaurant off Washington Square. Diana Vreeland, Catherine Guinness, Elsa Peretti, and Halston; the art dealers Klaus Kertess and Charles Cowles; Danny Fields, the notorious manager of the Ramones and Iggy Pop; and Arnold Schwarzenegger all circulated amid a riot of downtown’s demimonde. Mapplethorpe turned up in a velvet dinner jacket—the feral photographer  at his art world cotillion.

Presiding over this motley affair was Sam Wagstaff. Tall, charming, and beautiful in a richly disheveled fashion—he liked to wear a tuxedo with white sneakers and a studiously rumpled shirt—Wagstaff is remembered as the Diaghilev to Mapplethorpe’s Nijinsky, the older lover-patron who helped guide his protégé to renown. In the mid-1970s, when photography had yet to be taken seriously by the art establishment, Wagstaff, with his mix of élan, pedigree, and scholarship, became its ideal ambassador. “Sam Wagstaff was considered a great photography collector,” Holly Solomon observes in Patricia Morrisroe’s 1975 biography Mapplethorpe. “I wouldn’t have touched Robert without Sam.”

Martin Filler emphasizes Wagstaff’s impact on the rise of photography as a fine art:

For most of the twentieth century, many questioned photography’s legitimate place among the fine arts, and the audience for even the greatest historical examples was limited to a few true believers. However, when Mapplethorpe dragged Wagstaff to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1973 exhibition The Painterly Photograph: 1890-1914, Wagstaff had an epiphany. Gazing at Edward Steichen’s impressionistic 1904 views of Manhattan’s Flatiron Building, he became convinced that photography was an art form, not a mere mechanical process.

This revelation prompted a decade of frenzied acquisitions by Wagstaff, who came from an old New York family and used his substantial wealth to buy some of the most important photographs by dozens of forgotten early masters including Roger FentonJulia Margaret Cameron, Charles Marville, and his favorite, Gustave Le Gray. An indication of how successful he and his friends were is the extent to which these artists are now prominently featured in leading museums. Gefter’s extensive interviews with Wagstaff’s inner circle, among them Paul F. Walter (who specialized in nineteenth-century photographs), John C. Waddell (who favored interwar modernism), Pierre Apraxine (curator of the estimable Gilman Paper Company collection), and Daniel Wolf (whose 57th Street photography gallery was the best in America at the time) reveal how several of them worked in concert.