Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, Philip Gefter

JTF (just the facts): Published by Liveright Publishers/W.W. Norton & Company in 2014 (here). Hardcover (6 ½ x 9 ½ inches), 480 pages, with 32 black and white illustrations. $35. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As readers of this website are surely aware, if reluctant to admit, photography collectors as a group do not fascinate the public or media. Page Six and TMZ would be hard pressed to name one, other than perhaps Elton John, and even he could hardly be called sexy and cool anymore.

Auction houses don’t grovel before Collector Daily, as they do the “whales” in the contemporary painting and sculpture markets. The highest price ever paid for a photograph ($4.3 million) would hardly cause a ripple in the oceans they swim. Buyers of a De Kooning or a Koons can, if they wish, boast that these transactions are akin to the financial backing once afforded artists by Florentine princes, Renaissance Popes, Amsterdam merchants, and New York robber barons. While the market for Nadar and Cameron traces its lineage back to 19th century antiquarian booksellers.

Sam Wagstaff was the dazzling exception to this dowdy image. Handsome, rich, aloof, pedigreed, he was a tastemaker (in more than one artistic field) and a bold-face name in society columns wherever he lived as an adult, especially after he settled in New York in the early 1970s and began to circulate with his boyfriend and protégé Robert Mapplethorpe. Wagstaff had the sexual mystery to be accepted downtown at Warhol’s Factory and the credentials to be a guest at Park Ave. dinner parties. He was profiled in People and interviewed on The Dick Cavett Show. In the New York photo world of the ‘80s, if you said “Sam,” everyone knew whose name you were dropping.

His soigné reputation notwithstanding, I was skeptical that Wagstaff’s life was full enough to make a compelling biography. After all, other than sell his photo collection to the Getty in 1984 and act as Mapplethorpe’s sugar daddy, what had he actually done?

A helluva lot, as I learned in Gefter’s highly informed and enjoyable book. Interviewing dozens of friends and colleagues from every decade of his life and following clues in Wagstaff’s papers at the Getty, he connects him to trends (Minimalism) and to numerous artists besides Mapplethorpe (Tony Smith, Agnes Martin, Andy Warhol, Ray Johnson, Richard Tuttle, Michael Heizer, Joel-Peter Witkin) in significant ways that fill in the historical map of American art during the Vietnam War era.

As Gefter suggests, it was Wagstaff’s reputation for spotting trends in the contemporary art world, as well as his inherited fortune (from oil and real estate) that turned the collecting of photographs into a fashionable and competitive game in the ‘70s, a decade when the rest of the art world was in the doldrums.

Born in 1921, he had an American patrician upbringing that made him the ideal escort for New York debutantes. After schooling at Hotchkiss and Yale, and service in the U.S. Navy (he was stationed in a transport ship off Omaha Beach during D-Day), he put in 10 years as a Mad Ave account executive before realizing that he hated advertising, loved art and wanted to pursue an advanced degree. Why he decided on a radical change of direction isn’t clear, but upon graduation from the New York Art Institute, and after travels in Italy studying medieval painting in Tuscan churches, he landed a job as an assistant curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. In this perennially undervalued institution, the director Chick Austin had set a progressive art agenda for the entire nation in the 1930s and ‘40s.

It was here, in 1964, that Wagstaff mounted Black and White and Gray, the first survey of Minimalist art, two years before Kynaston McShine’s Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum, commonly (and wrongly) cited as the initial recognition of the movement. An early supporter of Tony Smith, Wagstaff had commissioned the steel black sculpture Throne (1956-57) and installed it as the dominant feature wherever he resided, including in his penthouse apartment at One Fifth Avenue.

The surprising list of luminaries who were friends of Wagstaff and guided his eye begins with Richard Offner. The august German art historian of trecento painting was his teacher at the Institute and taught him to study every detail of a work of art. (Driving though Italy, they would stop in a church and look at alterpieces in the afternoon; in the evening, Wagstaff would have to recite to Offner the exact colors and positions of the figures.) Through his curatorial jobs at the Wadsworth and then at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wagstaff also met dozens of New York artists who furthered his aesthetic education.

When the DIA’s thwarting of his advancement (Gefter suspects homophobia) coincided with a substantial inheritance from his family, Wagstaff decided he no longer needed a museum platform for his advanced views on art and in 1971 he moved permanently to lower Manhattan. His decision soon thereafter to begin collecting photographs (his eureka moment was seeing two Steichen bromoil prints of the Flatiron Building at the Met in 1973) shocked many of his art world friends, including philanthropist Agnes Gund. He also disappointed Brice Marden, one of several artists who were scratching out a living thanks to Wagstaff’s regular purchases of their drawings.

Wagstaff’s falling in love with photography slightly preceded but was accelerated by his love affair with Mapplethorpe. Their complex relationship has been written about at length before, by Patricia Morrisroe and by Patti Smith. Each had her own angle on the attraction, and Gefter has a strong one as well. Just as David Leavitt’s biography of Alan Turing views much of the mathematician’s behavior and writings through the prism of his secret and criminalized homosexuality, Gefter treats Wagstaff’s gay identity as central to his life in art. Limiting though this emphasis can be at times, Gefter also has an expertize in photography, as well as insider knowledge of the New York’s gay scene in the 1970s and ‘80s that Morrisroe and Smith couldn’t provide.

How much Mapplethorpe contributed to Wagstaff’s taste in photography is hard to gauge. The older man certainly took pride in the younger one’s growing acclaim. He bought Mapplethorpe a studio loft and a Hasselblad. In a sense he became his most successful curatorial discovery. They were never an exclusive couple, a source of anguish from Wagstaff’s POV. Gefter’s very funny accounts of their moves and counter-moves as they sought to incite jealousy in each other with other men read like a louche Jane Austen novel. Nonetheless, they never stopped deeply caring for and admiring each other. As one of their friends observed, Wagstaff gave Mapplethorpe class, and Mapplethorpe gave Wagstaff sex appeal.

Gefter believes that gay men created the photography market in the ‘70s because of their “liberated sensibilities and willing gazes.” Outlandish though this erotics of the auction world may sound at first (and there is plenty of evidence to refute it), one can’t deny that many of the dealers and buyers who seriously collected in that decade and earlier were gay (George Rinhart, Paul Walter, Pierre Apraxine, John Waddell, Howard Gilman, Harry Lunn) and that Wagstaff was their undisputed leader.

His artistic passions were specific. Gefter might also have speculated (but doesn’t) on the reasons why Wagstaff, in general, preferred the 19th century to the 20th. Works by photographers his own age or younger, apart from those by Mapplethorpe and Gerald Incandela, didn’t captivate him. His collection has few (or no) examples by Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, or Lee Friedlander. The color revolution of the ‘70s led by William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz passed him by.

Gustave Le Gray, on the other hand, was in Wagstaff’s opinion, “the greatest photographer of all, the best there has ever been.” And only a notch below him were Julia Margaret Cameron, Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, Adam Clark Vroman, and Frederick Evans. (André Jammes, who is not gay, had recognized the preeminence of Le Gray and the French calotypists many years before Wagstaff got started.)

More than sharing a “willing gaze,” the gay men who kick-started the photo-graphy market in the ‘70s did so out of camaraderie and the sport of collecting. In the company of fellow intelligent, witty, curious minds with a shared love of art and history, they were making discoveries and handling rare objects every time they opened an album or box.

Gefter’s chapters about the hunt for material, the dealings and double-dealings, with Rinhart trying to outsmart Wagstaff and vice versa, are the most fun in the book. Wagstaff was a lavish but decisive spender. Rarely was he unable to bring his quarry to hand. (One exception was in 1974 when he failed to bring the Herschel album of Cameron photographs out of England due to claims of native patrimony.)

Gefter also has smart things to say about individual works. He notes, for example, that Warhol’s 8 hr. film Empire, which Wagstaff had suggested to him as a project, relates to Minimalism, to phallic sexuality, and to Steichen’s photographs of the Flatiron building. His subject’s decadent taste and personality are brought out in choice details, such as the time in the ‘70s Wagstaff celebrated the arrival of artist (and potential conquest) Incandela by putting out fresh flowers, “cocaine, champagne, and caviar” in his sparsely furnished apartment overlooking the city.

In places where Wagstaff’s paper trail must have thinned out or vanished, Gefter isn’t as sound. When he creates a broader historical background for the action of his characters in the late 1960s, with obligatory stops at Woodstock and Max’s Kansas City, his descriptions are stock and sometimes inaccurate. (Baba Ram Dass’s best-selling book Be Here Now wasn’t published until 1971, and therefore couldn’t have informed Wagstaff’s flirtation with Buddhism before then.) Nor is it true that Hilton Kramer was “hostile to the idea of photography in the realm of the fine arts.” The NYT critic and grump was a champion of Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, Ansel Adams, and several others. Minimalism, on the other hand, he had no time for. Nor was he a fan of photography’s commodification.

Gefter notes but doesn’t dwell on Wagstaff’s less admirable traits. Raised to be a snobbish WASP, he remained all his life unafraid to make anti-Semitic and racist cracks. Nor was he ever a hero in the fight for gay rights. He and Mapple-thorpe both died of AIDS and yet neither pressed the government for more funding or the media for less stigmatization. Wagstaff was also a notorious cheapskate. A source of amusement among his friends, this must not have been so funny when someone who could least afford it was left to pay his restaurant check or taxi fare.

Most eye-opening is the news that Wagstaff helped illegally to suppress prices as a willing member of an “auction ring.” As Gefter explains the practice: members “would decide beforehand to limit the bidding within their small group; only one in the group bids on the lot and then all of them would divide it up among themselves afterward.” Lunn would preside at the London auctions as leader of this cabal, which included Wagstaff. “You were either friendly with Harry or you rarely bought anything,” reports Clark Worswick.

The early ‘80s were melancholy for Wagstaff, as avant-garde art was defined by neo-expressionism in painting and by the performances of Cindy Sherman, or the joking cynicism of Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince, movements and artists that didn’t interest a 60 year old. What’s more, post-modern theorists disdained connoisseurship, viewing as fetishistic or precious the ineffable qualities of light and fine printing that had attracted Wagstaff to Cameron and Le Gray.

John Szarkowski in his role as MoMA’s director of photography hovers as the shadow figure throughout much of the book. In an afterword, Gefter writes that he is “convinced that Wagstaff’s role was equal to Szarkowski’s in securing respect for photography as an art form.”

This is a brave and dubious claim. Szarkowski’s towering position is based on the supreme eloquence of his writings; his prescience and doggedness in identifying talent, both already developed (Lartigue, Kertész, Brandt, Evans, Callahan, Levitt) and developing (Winogrand, Arbus, Friedlander, Shore, Eggleston, Adams, Sternfeld, Groover); his scholarly devotion to Atget; and the elucidation of a vibrant documentary tradition that runs from Atget to Evans to Winogrand to Friedlander and beyond.

From the evidence assembled in this book, Wagstaff’s share of the credit depends mainly on Gefter’s assertion that he “almost single-handedly established the marketplace for photography.”  And even here, Wagstaff arguably did not do as much as Lunn, whose sponsorship of Ansel Adams prints in the 1970s brought photo collecting within reach of the middle class.

Wagstaff had a remarkable, unorthodox eye and his aesthetic instincts were second to none. He could respond with equal enthusiasm to the stark minimalism of Tony Smith, the kinky romanticism of Mapplethorpe and, after selling his collection to the Getty, to American silver. “I didn’t give a damn whether photography appreciated or not,” Wagstaff told the New York Times in 1982. “I appreciated it.”

What he lacked was the institutional backbone and security (as well as the literary talent and scope) that Szarkowski enjoyed. Which, in a sense, only makes Gefter’s account more valuable. Without his careful and generous attention, Wagstaff’s story might not have been told for many years, and perhaps never again will be so well. “I have found it’s best to make up one’s own rules, whenever possible,” he once wrote. Anyone at all wondering how photography grew up into an art and an art business should be grateful this book exists.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Liveright Publishing, W. W. Norton & Company

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