Art Doc of the Week | Black White + Gray

“In the 1960s, curators were a lot more like artists than they are today. The PhD. Mentality [now dominates] the curatorial world, and not to the best effect, always.” – Raymond Foye, in Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe

Late last year, photography critic Phillip Gefter’s book Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe was released to mixed reviews, but for many art world devotees and historians the biography of legendary art curator Sam Wagstaff was a long overdue serious critical assessment of a crucial figure in 20th century American art. Gefter chronicled how Wagstaff’s vast arts knowledge, shrewd and visionary instincts, and refined aesthetic made him an artist of sorts in his own right. Charting the same territory even before Gefter’s book was James Crump’s 2007 documentary Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe, which might well have shared the same title as Gefter’s work.

The film, less than eighty-minutes long, is dense with layered, overlapping strands of information and analysis. At its core is the love story (or not) between Wagstaff and controversial, groundbreaking photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The two met when Wagstaff, an established and powerful figure in the art world, was 51 and Mapplethorpe – a struggling artist who hadn’t yet found his artistic footing – was 26. While many of those interviewed in the film (including punk icon Patti Smith) speak glowingly of the partnership, asserting how it was mutually beneficial in countless ways, one interviewee says caustically, “I just got the feeling that Mapplethorpe had found a cash cow.… I don’t have a feeling of kindness toward Mapplethorpe [because] I never witnessed any kindness from him toward Sam.” Crump’s willingness to present a dissenting voice to what might otherwise come off as an almost fairy-tale pairing might seem an obvious directorial choice, but as documentaries slide more and more into blatant hagiography, it’s a relief to find a filmmaker inserting grainier perspectives for a grainier film.

Norman Seef

Norman Seef

 

Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe

The viewer is given the autobiographical backgrounds of both Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe – the former from a rarified upbringing whose aristocratic privilege wafted off him even when he (as a much older man) frequented grimy sex-clubs and the seedier sides of NY nightlife; the latter from a working-class background that afforded him a poor education but gave him something to shape himself against as his photographic gifts and interests grew. Somehow, these diametrically opposed opposites were kindred spirits.

Hung from the duo’s autobiographical frameworks is an engrossing, informative crash course in the evolution of the contemporary art world and all the ways Wagstaff either pushed it forward (among other things, he’s credited as being at the forefront of fusing the art world, fashion world, and club life) or was present when the new was born; the ways Smith’s art – music, poetry – centered the potent relationships she had with Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe; the evolution of gay rights and gay visibility as they manifest in the lives of the two men; how Wagstaff’s interest in photography helped elevate it to a form taken seriously as artistic expression. We’re also led to believe that Wagstaff would be horrified at what the art world has become. And that’s all just for starters.

The film is gorgeously strung together with news clips, family photos, and lots and lots of footage and photographs of the art Wagstaff collected or championed – as well, of course, as countless examples of Mapplethorpe’s own work. The result is not only a genealogy of influences and inspiration, but powerful portraits of the men assembled by the art in their lives.