A look at the life and contribution of Sam Wagstaff (1921-1987), curator, trend-setter, collector of photographs, and lover and guide to Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), told chronologically with archival footage, photographs, and contemporary interviews. Wagstaff is upper class, handsome, and gay, reinventing himself after World War II as a curator, with extraordinary success. By the 1970s, he's friends with Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, his mother has left him a fortune, and he's collecting old photographs by the score. Many who comment discuss his largely forgotten contribution to art - the discovery of photography. The film sets the record straight. Written by
I want to proceed cautiously, as I know some of the people interviewed in this film,. It's essentially an excellent documentary about collector Wagstaff. His protégé Robert Mapplethorpe is far better known. To the degree, that is, that either is known outside the worlds of art.
The filmmaker worked against built-in problems: Many people involved in the art scene of the time are dead. Some have died of natural causes and many, all too sadly, were lost to AIDS.
Part of what he comes up with as a result is fascinating. For example, who knew that Dick Cavett had interviewed Sam Wagstaff on television! John Richardson's presence lends the undertaking much panache. He is a magnificent art historian and writer. And Patti Smith: Patti, we love you! I was confused now and then by unattributed voice-overs. For example, a woman speaks disparagingly about the relationship between Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe. I see a name or two I don't recognize in the cast list and guess she is one of them. But since she is almost the lone negative voice, it would have been helpful to identify her when she spoke.
Overall, though, it's a fine work. One Fifth Avenue is still there. The museums mentioned are still here. A few of the people -- Richardson, Dominick Dunne, Smith, John Giorno -- are still here. But the scene is pretty much gone. This documentary helps people remember it and keep Mapplethorpe's work, and the history of collecting and of photography in the US, in perspective.
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