Cover image for Wagstaff, before and after Mapplethorpe : a biography
Wagstaff, before and after Mapplethorpe : a biography
Gefter, Philip.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Liveright Publishing Corporation, [2015]
Physical Description:
xvii, 458 pages, 32 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Sam Wagstaff, the legendary curator, collector, and patron of the arts, emerges as a cultural visionary in this groundbreaking biography in which Wagstaff's largely overlooked influence on the world of contemporary art and photography, and on the evolution of gay identity in the latter part of the twentieth century, is portrayed.
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N406.W34 G44 2015 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Sam Wagstaff, the legendary curator, collector, and patron of the arts, emerges as a cultural visionary in this groundbreaking biography. Even today remembered primarily as the mentor and lover of Robert Mapplethorpe, the once infamous photographer, Wagstaff, in fact, had an incalculable--and largely overlooked--influence on the world of contemporary art and photography, and on the evolution of gay identity in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Born in New York City in 1921 into a notable family, Wagstaff followed an arc that was typical of a young man of his class. He attended both Hotchkiss and Yale, served in the navy, and would follow in step with his Ivy League classmates to the "gentleman's profession," as an ad executive on Madison Avenue. With his unmistakably good looks, he projected an aura of glamour and was cited by newspapers as one of the most eligible bachelors of the late 1940s. Such accounts proved deceiving, for Wagstaff was forced to live in the closet, his homosexuality only revealed to a small circle of friends. Increasingly uncomfortable with his career and this double life, he abandoned advertising, turned to the formal study of art history, and embarked on a radical personal transformation that was in perfect harmony with the tumultuous social, cultural, and sexual upheavals of the 1960s.

Accordingly, Wagstaff became a curator, in 1961, at Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum, where he mounted both "Black, White, and Gray"--the first museum show of minimal art--and the sculptor Tony Smith's first museum show, while lending his early support to artists Andy Warhol, Ray Johnson, and Richard Tuttle, among many others. Later, as a curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, he brought the avant-garde to a regional museum, offending its more staid trustees in the process.

After returning to New York City in 1972, the fifty-year-old Wagstaff met the twenty-five-year-old Queens-born Robert Mapplethorpe, then living with Patti Smith. What at first appeared to be a sexual dalliance became their now historic lifelong romance, in which Mapplethorpe would foster Wagstaff's own burgeoning interest in contemporary photography and Wagstaff would help secure Mapplethorpe's reputation in the art world. In spite of their profound class differences, the artistic union between the philanthropically inclined Wagstaff and the prodigiously talented Mapplethorpe would rival that of Stieglitz and O'Keefe, or Rivera and Kahlo, in their ability to help reshape contemporary art history.

Positioning Wagstaff's personal life against the rise of photography as a major art form and the simultaneous formation of the gay rights movement, Philip Gefter's absorbing biography provides a searing portrait of New York just before and during the age of AIDS. The result is a definitive and memorable portrait of a man and an era.

Author Notes

Philip Gefter was on staff at The New York Times for over fifteen years, where he wrote regularly about photography. His essays are collected in the book Photography After Frank (2009). He lives in New York City.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Long known primarily as photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's lover and patron, Sam Wagstaff (1921-87) is revealed, in Gefter's substantial biography, as a significant art world figure in his own right. Gefter carefully charts Wagstaff's aristocratic New York upbringing, as well as his early curatorial work, including the 1964 exhibition, Black, White and Gray, which brought photography and minimalist art to the national scene. Gefter attributes Wagstaff's unique vision as curator, collector, and patron as a major source of photography's rise and acceptance as a fine art form in the late twentieth century. Throughout the book, Gefter parallels Wagstaff's successful career with his glamorous, yet closeted, personal life. Though he was 25 years older than Mapplethorpe when they met in 1972, the curator found inspiration and counterpoint in the provocative young artist (Sam gave Robert class and Robert gave Sam sex appeal). A majority of the biography maps the profound romantic and creative bond the couple shared as they navigated the colorful 1970s New York art world, and the shifting terrains of gay culture before and during the AIDS epidemic.--Bosch, Lindsay Copyright 2015 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Starred Review. Until fairly recently, Sam Wagstaff was best remembered as the patron and lover of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Gefters (Photography After Frank) rich biography shows this collector and curator not only as a trendsetter in the art world, but a tastemaker of historic consequences who shaped art history during the second half of the 20th century. Handsome, wealthy, and Yale educated, Wagstaff abandoned his career in advertising to study art history under Renaissance scholar Richard Offner at NYU. In 1964, he curated the first exhibition of minimalist art, called Black, White, and Gray, at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Hartford, Conn.; however he was never officially recognized as the first art-world professional to identify the movement. His greatest contribution, according to the author, was as an independent advocate for and connoisseur of photography, as evident by Wagstaffs legendary photo collection, now on display at Los Angeless J. Paul Getty Museum. Gefter, a former staffer at the New York Times, writes gracefully and with a sure command of his subject. Wagstaff witnessed dramatic cultural shifts in the art world and in the gay community, all of which are vividly tracked and smartly explained. Also commendable is the way Gefter traces the arc of the Wagstaff-Mapplethorpe relationship without letting Mapplethorpe steal the show-as the photographer is wont to do. Photos. Agent: Jim Rutman, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Prologuep. xv
Part 1 Provenance
1 Dragged Mass Displacementp. 3
2 The Crossingp. 24
3 Be Here Nowp. 49
4 Jardin Des Nabip. 80
Part 2 Apollo and Dionysus In Manhattan
5 Kama Sutra, Babyp. 105
6 From Minimalism to Mapplethorpep. 120
7 Transformationp. 138
8 Circles of Influencep. 147
9 Luxe, Calme, Et Voluptep. 169
Part 3 The Fine Art of Longing
10 The Inamoratop. 197
11 Let the Games Beginp. 219
12 Applausep. 248
13 Back to Pompeiip. 266
14 The Arrivistep. 287
Part 4 Nocturne
15 The Pictures Generationp. 311
16 Whispers of the Musep. 327
17 The Glimmer and the Gloomp. 339
18 Gardenias, Fragrant, Floatingp. 363
Afterwordp. 384
Notesp. 389
Acknowledgmentsp. 421
Indexp. 425