Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe is an interesting but flawed feature documentary that seems as concerned with righting a historical wrong as with probing the relationship between these two fascinating men. Mapplethorpe, who died of Aids in 1989, remains one of America’s most famous photographers, who alternately shocked and delighted the art world in the 70s with his dramatic, sado-masochistic photography. Wagstaff was an enigmatic, highly influential art curator and collector who also, as this film suggests, discovered Mapplethorpe. Both his lover and sugar daddy, Wagstaff played a central role in Mapplethorpe’s success, which, together with his own impact on the art scene, has been mostly forgotten by the current generation of art fans. James Crump’s documentary details Wagstaff’s life, from his privileged birth to his passion for photography in the early 1970s and his death from Aids in 1987, placing him firmly back at the centre of an explosive period in 20th-century history.
The film presents Wagstaff as a man with chiselled good looks who rejected his rightful place at the top of New York society. Gay but stuck in the closet, Wagstaff had a miserable time in the 1950s, according to the musician Patti Smith, who was extremely close to both men and whose interviews are one of the film’s highlights. He abandoned his career in advertising and devoted himself to studying art history, initially concentrating on the work of early Italian masters. Soon his focus changed dramatically, and he became a champion of Minimalism, staging a landmark exhibition entitled Black, White and Gray at the Wadsworth Atheneum in the early 60s, as well as advocating the work of emerging artists such as Andy Warhol. In 1973, Wagstaff plunged into the world of photography, building up an incredible collection of images with the millions he inherited from his mother.
The radical changes that took place in American society in the 60s and 70s allowed Wagstaff to essentially transform himself from a straight-laced aristocrat to a man who could openly explore his own sexuality. His relationship with Mapplethorpe, 25 years his junior, drew him in to a world of coke and clubs, orgies and S&M parties. It is a real tragedy that this scene ended so horrifically with the scourge of Aids in the 80s and the premature death of both men, and the documentary is at its most affecting when recounting those events. The archival footage of Mapplethorpe shot while he was ill shows a weak, greying artist who has lost all the glamour and sex appeal that he so vividly exploited at the peak of his career.
The main problem with the documentary is that the exploration of this revolutionary era is staged in such a dull and unoriginal way. Interviews with gallery owners, art critics, friends of the couple and so on are all conventional talking heads, shot in their studies, offices, back garden. The narration is dry and stilted. While the interviews are cut with some terrific photos of Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe, as well as Wagstaff’s own outstanding collection of photographs (sold to the J Paul Getty Museum for $5 million in 1983), the documentary fails to do full justice to the two dynamic men at its heart.
Black White + Gray is part of a new strand of art documentaries released on DVD by Revolver Entertainment in association with Arthouse Films. Other releases include The Cool School and A Walk Into the Sea.