Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe (2007) Poster

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Mythic Men
christopherfordm10 January 2008
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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insight into the art of talented curator/collector Sam Wagstaff
jvframe10 May 2008
To screen at Brisbane Queer Film Festival 2008 (on 25th May). A documentary purporting to reveal, for historical accuracy and posterity, the achievements and broad influence of radical USA art curator and collector Sam Wagstaff. We're given more than enough reason to respect and celebrate Sam Wagstaff in his own right as a strongly individual creative artist, but someone whose reputation could too easily be overshadowed by the people he was associated with – especially his long term lover, the notoriously risqué photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

I especially enjoyed the section dealing with Sam Wagstaff's obsession in travelling the globe to collect fine photographic works on a very broad scale – routinely setting new records at auction (and pissing people off in the process). We're told that, more than nearly all of his art world contemporaries, he saw photography as having unique intrinsic value. Eventually he sold his collection of "overvalued" photographs for five million dollars.

Robert Mapplethorpe's long term friend and flatmate Patti Smith naturally became a very good friend of Sam Wagstaff. Patti gives us a confidant's perspective on both men's lives and passions.

This is interesting as a slice of queer cultural heritage but I anticipate that any student of art and photography will find this film to be extraordinarily entertaining.

The film is much more about Sam Wagstaff than it is about Robert Mapplethorpe (or their relationship), but the point is made that Sam inspired, supported and enabled Mapplethorpe to achieve decidedly more than 15 minutes of fame.

The audio editing could be the only weak technical point – for some strange reason (at least in the stereo screener DVD) the living testimonies are mixed extremely to the right channel and are very feint in comparison to the narration.

NB: What we're seeing here at BQFF is 69 minutes long – and according to the listing at it should be 77 minutes.
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Negative Comments Come from Eugenia Parry
SamHill4 October 2008
The woman who is critical of Wagstaff & Mapplethorpe's relationship is Eugenia Parry (who has written or edited a number of books on photography, most recently on Joel Peter Witkin). She is shown and identified speaking about Wagstaff's intellectual pedigree, and is shown briefly -- but not identified again -- before the first negative statement, which is a voice- over images of a young Mapplethorpe. Then later she has another voice over with other images, followed by another comment about Mapplethorpe's manipulativeness (from, I think, Holly Solomon).

Identifying speakers always seems to be a problem with documentaries. There's a balance to be struck between assuming the audience isn't paying attention and must be told each and every time a speaker appears, and assuming the audience can keep track of dozens of separate speakers with only a single identification. Obviously if you're making a film with only two or three speakers, you can cut back on identifiers (especially if those speakers also have distinctive voices or speech mannerisms). But sometimes minimalism can be carried too far, and my feeling is that the more speakers you have, the more you need to be careful about identifying them.

As an additional note, the closed-captions for this film generally don't identify speakers, either, except for the narrator (who is never visible in the film, and whose voice sometimes picks up from another speaker during montages of images).
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Extrmely informative yet a lot of surface
Handlinghandel7 March 2008
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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