Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe - when art, sex and love intertwine
by DREW ROWSOME-
Sam Wagstaff was born rich and gay, and as an art collector he became an influential tastemaker who changed the way we perceive art and the world. Yet, as the title Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe admits, he will always be most famous as photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's lover and patron. And author Philip Gefter has an agenda beyond elevating Wagstaff's reputation and recounting his life: Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe is at heart an ambitious treatise on how photography became art. And how much of that transformation was due to Wagstaff.
Gefter also offers a step-by-step analysis of how Mapplethorpe's art, and star status, developed. Mapplethorpe's fame, or notoriety, as an artist was cemented when he photographed the gay male BDSM world and nude black men in a beautifully-lit and posed manner that treated the subject matter as one would a landscape, still life or female nude. The subject matter may have been shocking, particularly in the '70s and '80s when the work was produced, but the technique was flawless and coldly elegant. And the controversy, the debate over what is porn and what is art, made his career.
Wagstaff was born into a wealthy pedigreed New York family and Gefter covers his childhood, time in boarding school and struggles with his sexuality, a struggle he, despite eventually, emphatically, coming out, never quite reconciled. And while his sexual relationship with Mapplethorpe was not an enduring one, their emotional and professional partnership lasted their lifetimes. Gefter offers anecdotes and gossip but, aside from a few odd attempts to standardize the mechanics of gay male relationships, the recounting is matter-of-fact and not salacious.
Where Gefter's true passion (and it must here be noted that he was the main photography critic for The New York Times for over 15 years and the producer of the marvellous, if similarly coy, film Bill Cunningham New York) is the story of Wagstaff's obsessive collecting of photography turned a journalistic endeavour into the artform we recognize it as today. Gefter writes that Wagstaff "didn't even like photography . . . Wagstaff had long believed in a hierarchy that privileged the fine art of painting over the applied art of photography."
That opinion changed and Gefter finds fascinating quotes that attempt to explain just what caused this revolution and just how Wagstaff, who became on of the ultimate authorities, judged what is art and what is not quite. Gefter posits that it has to do with sensuality and the gay sensibility. Gefter explicitly links the gay rights movement with photography's ascendance.
I started to read Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe for admittedly prurient reasons. I am a Mapplethorpe fan and that is emphasized by my continuing idolization of Patti Smith (M Train). I am also fascinated by that period of creativity in New York, the work and life of Andy Warhol, the scene at CBGB, gay history in general, the photographs of Diane Arbus and George Platt Lynes that once encountered in an original print can never be forgotten, etc, etc. And completely pruriently, Mapplethorpe's sexuality and fetishes are erotically irresistible. I would have settled for having those itches scratched, or even massaged. What I hadn't counted on was being given a new perspective on seeing and experiencing not only art but, by extension, life itself.