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Sam Wagstaff: The Man Who Made Mapplethorpe


And forever changed the art world


Robert Mapplethorpe's photography is treasured by millions, but the older man who served as his patron and lover has largely been forgotten. Sam Wagstaff was a handsome, charming high-society figure who could have done anything, but decided to leverage his money and privilege to shape modern American culture and make Mapplethorpe a star.

In Philip Gefter's illuminating biography, Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, we not only gain insight into the pair's courtship and how the Wagstaff, a curator at the time, mentored a young Mapplethorpe, we also receive a primer on the (mostly gay) men who were conspiring to shake up postwar 20th century art.

As novelist Edmund White is quoted as saying in the book, "You didn't have to search very far to think why somebody might want to go out with him... Then he was also very rich, and then was also very powerful in the art world. Those three things made him quite a catch." But the feeling was mutual, in White's view, who later states, Sam found Robert so attractive "partly because he had already decided he was an important artist."

Most museums and galleries rejected the legitimacy of photography until Wagstaff, a former curator of contemporary art at the Wadswroth Atheneum (1961-68) and the Detroit Institute of Arts (68-71), amassed one of the finest private collections in the world, began championing flea-market snapshots he'd discovered, some dating back to the 1860s. He eventually sold that collection to the Getty Museum, kickstarting its world-renowned collections.

Early on, Gefter states, Wagstaff transformed himself into a collector of photographs and "assumed the role of something rarer: a tastemaker of historic consequence." In the process, he created the market (and mythology) for Mapplethorpe's own work. "I wouldn't have touched Robert without Sam," explains one curator, "and there were others like me who felt the same way."

Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe is available now.

Philip Gefter in Conversation with Edmund White Nov. 17 at SVA in NYC.

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