On Philip Gefter’s Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe
By Kira Josefsson
Philip Gefter’s new biography of Sam Wagstaff examines the life of the influential curator and collector, and his romantic relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Gefter argues that there is a relationship between the queer gaze and a particularly influential period for the history of photography, as told through Wagstaff’s story. Here we feature writer Kira Josefsson’s review of Gefter’s book. This article also appears in Issue 9 of the Aperture Photography App, a new biweekly publication from Aperture: click here to download the free app.
In 1970s New York, when homosexuality was still punishable by law, it was an especially risky act for a man to let his eyes linger on another man in public. But photographs enjoyed privately could be a safe space for the queer gaze. As author and critic Philip Gefter argues in his biography Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, it was not an accident that so many photography collectors active during this period were gay men. The book charts the life of Sam Wagstaff, best-known as the lover and patron of Robert Mapplethorpe, and sets out to show that his importance extends beyond that relationship—that he was a critical force in photography’s elevation to an art form, on par with MoMA curator John Szarkowski in influence.
Born into the repressive, patrician circles of the 1920s Upper East Side, Wagstaff always had a keen eye. But it was not until he went back to school for art history at age thirty-six that he was able to fully explore his interest in the visual. From 1961 to 1971, Wagstaff worked as a curator, first at the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, Connecticut, then at the Detroit Institute of Arts. During this time, he immersed himself in contemporary art, spending most of his free time with young artists in Hartford, Detroit, and New York, championing those—often men—whose ideas, talent, and, frequently, looks attracted him. In this way, Gefter argues, Wagstaff came to be at the forefront of new ideas; he was responsible for the first exhibition of minimalist art at a major museum, with Black, White, and Gray at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1964.
Wagstaff’s love for photography coincided directly with his love for Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe had already begun his move from collage to photography when the two men—born the same day, twenty-five years apart—began their relationship in 1972. Wagstaff had a ferocious belief in Mapplethorpe’s talent. He supported him financially by buying him a loft in New York and pushed his career in myriad other ways. Their deep bond, forged as much by intellectual and artistic exchange as by attraction, was often complicated, and they each took other long-term lovers; but their symbiosis would last until Wagstaff died of AIDS in 1987. (Mapplethorpe was taken two years later.)
In 1973, the two went to see the exhibition The Painterly Photograph at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Wagstaff had a revelation in front of Steichen’s The Flatiron (1904) which led him to shed his skepticism about the medium. He turned to photography with the enthusiasm of a religious convert, trawling auctions, flea markets, and estate sales all over Europe and the U.S. He soon had a vast, idiosyncratic collection, encompassing everything from work by Nadar to cat pictures, and he showed it to everyone who would listen, rhapsodizing over light and composition, pointing out parallels to classical painting. These photographs ended up in shows, were edited into a book by Wagstaff, and, eventually, joined the Getty Museum collection.
Gefter argues that Mapplethorpe benefited by learning about the largely uncharted aesthetic history of photography as Wagstaff drew its outlines for himself—and the medium benefited, as well. The fact that a person with Wagstaff’s by-then considerable weight in the art world took such an interest in photography, not widely accepted as a fine art, helped spark the attention of others. No doubt the large sums Wagstaff and his fellow enthusiasts spent on their collections helped, too.
A curator engaged in art investment can fall into conflicts of interest; the profit motive risks muddling curatorial judgment. Wagstaff was certainly not in it for the money, but this slippery slope was nevertheless sometimes manifest in his actions. Gefter, clearly enthused by his subject, tends to breeze past such inequities. His conjectures about the link between Wagstaff’s homosexuality and his habit of collecting can also come across as slightly tenuous. Such missteps aside, the biography draws from a treasure trove of materials and paints a rich, detailed portrait, including two short inserts with images of the (human, as well as inanimate) objects of Wagstaff’s affection. Wagstaff is a loving and inquisitive cultural history of the New York art world in the twentieth century.
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The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.