The life of an influential champion of photography as an art form.
Educated at Yale and the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, Sam Wagstaff (1922-1987) was a prominent art collector and promoter from the 1960s, when he was hired as curator of painting, prints and drawings at the Wadsworth Atheneum, until his death from complications due to AIDS. Coming of age in the 1950s, he became an expert, former New York Times staff writer Gefter (Photography After Frank, 2009) writes, “at leading the double life of a homosexual, relying on his impeccable etiquette to shield his activities in the closet.” In his circles of artists, writers, dancers and musicians, the closet included Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Allen Ginsberg and John Cage. Although these gay men socialized easily among themselves, some, like Wagstaff, lived behind a “veil of fear about being discovered.” Not until 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a pathology, did many gay men begin to feel some freedom. By that time, Wagstaff had become the highly visible lover, and generous patron, of the young Robert Mapplethorpe. Wagstaff was fascinated both by Mapplethorpe’s art and his sexual allure. Mapplethorpe had been involved with wealthy men before, but no one as charming, handsome and appealing as Wagstaff. Besides, the writer Edmund White noted, “he was also very rich, and…very powerful in the art world.” Although others saw Mapplethorpe as a bit of a hustler, Wagstaff was smitten, and he bought him a Hasselblad camera and a loft. The relationship pushed Wagstaff into the world of photography, where he stood out as a collector and opinion maker. In 1978, the eminent Corcoran Gallery mounted a photography show drawn from his collection; by the 1980s, he had become internationally famous.
Gefter draws on interviews and considerable research to create a richly detailed portrait of a connoisseur who defied convention in the art world and in his own life.