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
Saw this film as part of the 2008 Palm Springs Film Festival. It was gratifying to see Sam Wagstaff finally revealed as, perhaps, the last great aesthetic champion of the late 20th century. While his personal and art-world public relationship with Mapplethorpe both energized and eventually demonized them both, theirs was, whether consciously or not, the most prophetic of Faustian bargains. The realms and clash of class, culture, money and infamy are as old as all stories, but here it is put in our contemporary, American, queer America, specifically, the heady days of an always-changing New York City in the 1970s. As a coda to Patricia Morrisroe's superb 1995 biography, Mapplethorpe, this film correctly posits Wagstaff as the artist's pre-eminent guide and counselor; while both men were intensely gifted, it was the man, the curator and the collector Wagstaff whom we must always cherish and remember for the dazzling, singular vision he made in his world. What bothered me about the film was as much who they spoke to as much as they DIDN'T speak to - I'm sorry, but Dominick Dunne was the Hedda Hopper/Robin Leach of the 70s New York art world, and his inclusion cheapened the film for me. Raymond Foye was Henry Geldzahler's boyfriend at a critical time in the Wagstaff/Mapplethorpe relationship, and I would have liked to have heard more from Ingrid Sischy (then editor of Artforum, now editor of Interview). And it seemed remiss not to include the art critic Klaus Kertess, who was among the most influential critics at the time, and/or Dimitri Levas, who was for a long period of time the major domo of Mapplethorpe's studio. The only dealer that was interviewed was Robert's first, the late Holly Solomon - the true commercial nature of the Wagstaff/Mapplethorpe relationship was forged through the Robert Miller Gallery and it's directors, Howard Read and John Cheim - THIS is where the true Mapplethorpe phenomenon was forged - yet there is no pursuit of this important aspect of both men and their conjoined destinies. Patti Smith, as should be wholly expected, is the living muse of both these men and our film's guide. I think that she, like many of us, is somewhat surprised to still be around - but we are. On balance, this is an excellent documentary of a very worthy subject, and poses the fundamental question: would we know either of these men if they had never known each other?
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