Of the threesome, he was the most influential and important - at least at the time. Today, he is nothing more than a footnote in two giants' considered careers. When they first met, she was a struggling poet/musician and he was a directionless artist. In the cultured curator, the duo found a benefactor and believer. Now, more than three decades later, Patti Smith is the grand dame of the DIY movement, the godmother of punk and high priestess of founding rock iconoclast. Her partner, Robert Mapplethorpe, would become one of the art world's most skilled and controversial photographers. His glamorous glossed looks at everything from flower petals to pornography would set the cultural conversation for the '80s. But what of Sam Wagstaff, the influential New York entrepreneur who used his money and position to support everything from pop art to the rise of photography as a new medium? Why isn't he better remembered, especially considering the company he kept? In this stellar new documentary, Black, White + Gray, filmmaker James Crump tries to answer this historic - and personal - dilemma. He almost succeeds.
He was raised in the lap of luxury by a mother who doted on, and made demands of, him. He was educated in the best schools, and served his country as a Naval Officer in WWII. After defeating the Nazi's, he returned to New York and entered into advertising. Before long, his interests waned and worked their way toward the burgeoning abstract expressionist movement. Taking a position as curator of a famed Northeastern museum, he championed minimalism, and the new pop mentality. By the time the '70s rolled around, photography had caught his fancy - and it was there that he met challenging chanteuse Patti Smith and her boy toy companion Robert Mapplethorpe. For the trendsetting and subverting Sam Wagstaff, it was a revelation. A closeted homosexual, he immediately began a stormy relationship with the soon-to-be celebrated shutterbug. Through his efforts, Mapplethorpe became a superstar. Together, they forged a unique window into unseen worlds both personal and professional. And when AIDS swept through the urban gay communities during the '80s, they would both die from its diabolical designs.
It's rare, even in a media-saturated world, that something new can be discovered, especially when it comes to a discussion of such famous faces as Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Many who knew of either the musician or the artist recognized their complex connection, but the influence and importance of Sam Wagstaff has long since gone from historic infamy to a mere footnote. Frankly, the man featured in James Crump's engaging documentary Black, White + Gray deserves better. Many may not have understood Wagstaff. Fewer still may have tolerated his egotism and self-aggrandizement. But there's no doubting his eye for art, or his desire to consistently stay on the cutting edge of same. Today, no one scoffs when a canvas or a photo sells for six figures (typically, it's more like seven). But back at the start of the '60s, Wagstaff was seen as insane for giving voice - and financial validity - to painters who perverted the medium (Pollock, Warhol) or sculptures who subverted statuary expectations. Yet he predicted trends before anyone could even see the start up, and he exited fads before they could spiral out of significance and simply fade away.
So it's strange that Crump's film - a minor overview that never gets deeper than the necessary facts - would be the first major effort to try and explain Wagstaff. The information contained in Black, White + Gray is highly intriguing, and the images (many drawn from Mapplethorpe's canon and Wagstaff astounding collection) remind one of walking through a high end gallery. Yet so little is really known about the man - outside of the obvious gay/drugs/revolutionary push - that when a chosen few of the talking heads on hand actually take him to task, the metaphysical backlash is stunning. Wagstaff was clearly no saint - he was driven by demons chasing him since his overly protective Polish mother pimped him as her asexual escort - but Crump can't get beyond the armchair psychologist quality of the analysis. Sure, some of his interview subjects discuss art and the New York scene like they're explaining an ancient programming language (apparently, all insular realms have their own indecipherable buzzwords), but when the glorious Patti Smith is your sole personal connection to the man, the perspective gets rather one-sided.
Still, there is a great deal here to recommend. The manner in which Wagstaff collected - for visual, not name or monetary value - really shines through in the images. There are some absolutely gorgeous entries, and a few disturbing ones as well (the curator had what could best be described as an advanced morbid curiosity). In their monochrome grace, we instantly recognize what drove the man. Mapplethorpe, on the other hand, has few of his photographs featured. One imagines it's an issue of copyright or compensation. Yet it would really help if we could see some of the more provocative prints. The whole '80s uproar, spearheaded by the nasty and narrow-minded senator Jesse Helms, gets glossed over much too quickly, but at least Mapplethorpe is around to defend and define himself. He was much more public a persona than Wagstaff, but that doesn't make the latter any less fascinating. It's just that Black, White + Gray merely whets our appetite for more on the ethereal triangle. Smith is still around (and will be the subject of her own rock doc this year), and Mapplethorpe got a massive media overhaul during his tabloid travails. This film stands as a nice beginning to a necessary Wagstaff reexamination. Yet as with most tastes of something savory, we want another serving.
Provided to DVD Talk via a preview screener, it's hard to judge what the final visual presentation will look like (a disc was indeed released on April 1). The mostly black and white imagery (with some analog and digital color video tossed in for contemporary measure looks excellent, and the overall transfer of the archival material (including a rare Wagstaff Q&A) comes across expertly. The picture is non-anamorphic, the typical full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but again, this may not be the last word on how the film is featured.
Since it is mostly conversation and voice-over, with music used sparingly, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix doesn't have much to work with. Granted, all conversations are crystal clear and the narration is nicely modulated. But without final product, everything said here is mere critical conjecture.
The sole bonus feature is a 19 minute conversation with the famed curator, taken from a grainy videotaped '70s symposium at the Corcoran Museum. Though the visual quality is questionable at best, the information contained herein is crucial to understanding the man. It provides a nice level of context that the documentary itself cannot - or could not - offer.
There's a strange back and forth going on with Black, White + Gray that seems almost antithetical to what a documentary as a category is supposed to do. On the one hand, director James Crump does the legacy of Sam Wagstaff a major service by celebrating him to an audience who, more than likely, has never heard of him or recognized his lasting influence on the art scene. On the other hand, we end up like Andrea True and her disco connection - we want more, MORE, MORE!!! Like the introduction to a major work of non-fiction that forgets to include the rest of the chapters, Black, White + Gray is masterful, if maddening. It easily earns a Highly Recommended rating, but with a bit more content, it would be a classic. Sam Wagstaff forever changed the way the art world looked at photography. He also helped a struggling Robert Mapplethorpe realize his unusual, eclectic ambitions. The modern scene would be nothing without his foresight and aesthetic. Black, White + Gray at least gives us this much clarity. The man's true image, one fears, is far more cloudy and compound.