Having seen and liked Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photography, I was interested to take a look at Black, White and Gray. The film focusses on Mapplethorpe’s relationship with Sam Wagstaff, a curator and collector who launched and guided Mapplethorpe’s career and was his romantic partner for years. I knew nothing about Sam Wagstaff before watching the film and to my mind he is by far the more interesting of the two characters.
A handsome, well educated man from a privileged background, Wagstaff followed the expected path for a man of his upbringing; an Ivy League university, a fixture on the debs circuit, a stint in the Navy followed by a career in the newly emerging and glamorous field of advertising in the 50s. Realising that his interests lay elsewhere, both sexually and professionally, Wagstaff eventually rebelled against this. He went back to college to study art at New York University and quickly became a force to be reckoned with in the East Coast art world. He was an early supporter of Minimalism, Pop Art, Conceptual Art and Earthworks, but it was his championing of photography as a fine art that became his legacy.
Wagstaff is a fascinating character, a man who had he been born fifty years earlier would no doubt have been condemned to live a false life, married to a woman he did not love, working in a profession he hated. Luckily he was of age in a time where gay men were beginning to come out and form their own subculture in New York and in the creative arts.
Although there was a twenty year age gap between Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff they were immediately attracted to each other on first meeting in New York. Mapplethorpe was Wagstaff’s opposite in many ways – from a working class Queens neighbourhood, less socially assured, less monied – but they found in each other qualities that sustained a relationship for fifteen years until Wagstaff’s death from pneumonia arising from AIDS in 1987. Mapplethorpe followed him two years later.
The documentary is not long, running at just over an hour, and I would have loved a more comprehensive look at Wagstaff’s life. Surely a man as interesting, cultured and handsome as this deserves his very own biopic?