Yale-educated and born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Sam Wagstaff's transformation from innovative museum curator to Robert Mapplethorpe's lover and patron is intensively probed in Black White + Gray. During the heady years of the 1970s and 1980s, the New York City art scene was abuzz with a new spirit, and Mapplethorpe would be at the center of it. Wagstaff pulled him from his suburban Queens existence, gave him a camera and brought him into this art world that seemed to be waiting for him, creating the man whose infamous images instilled emotions ranging from awe to anger.
In turn, Mapplethorpe brought the formerly starched-shirt preppie to the world of drugs and gay S-and-M sex, well-documented in his still-startling photographs. Twenty five years separated the lovers, but their relationship was symbiotic to its core, and the two remained together forever. The film also explores the relationship both men had with musician/poet Patti Smith, whose 1975 debut album "Horses" catapulted her to fame.
In the 1940s, Wagstaff had been a Navy Ensign serving off the coast of Normandy during the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach. In the 1950s, Wagstaff was an advertising man, working for the storied Madison Avenue firm, Benton & Bowles. Wagstaff recognized the increasingly sexualized content of marketing and publicity campaigns of the period which hastened his own personal metamorphosis. A participant, as well as a catalyst of the period, Wagstaff's life intersected the cultural divides that characterized postwar America-the Vietnam War and the 1969 Woodstock festival, for example-a moment tinged by conformity and later ruptured by rebellion and simultaneous revolutions in sexuality, politics, and art.
Curators like Wagstaff and the Metropolitan Museum's Henry Geldzahler, Andy Warhol's aesthetic adviser, acted more like artists during this time. At Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum and later the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wagstaff's exhibitions, such as "Continuity and Change," "Black, White and Gray" and Michael Heizer's notorious "earth work" entitled "Dragged Mass," garnered national attention. Wagstaff was among the first to recognize the oncoming collision of art and fashion, music and clublife and he was a champion of Minimalism, Andy Warhol, and a coterie of forward thinking artists like Tony Smith, Richard Tuttle, James Lee Byars, Agnes Martin and Ray Johnson. Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe and Smith were at the center of scenes variously characterized by raucous "happenings," the Warhol Factory and notorious hangouts like Max's Kansas City. The period was colored by club life, the emergence of punk rock at CBGBs, Studio 54, and darker corners of lower Manhattan, like the Meat Packing District and the Chelsea Piers, where a teeming gay/SM demimonde was thriving. The film shows Wagstaff secretively transcending these various social strata, while Smith and Mapplethorpe edged toward notoriety and infamy with their respective work.
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