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Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe

A Biography

Philip Gefter (Author)

Logo markA Liveright book

 

Biography on a grand cultural level, here is the long-awaited story of Sam Wagstaff and his indelible influence on the world of late-twentieth-century art.

Sam Wagstaff, the legendary curator, collector, and patron of the arts, emerges as a cultural visionary in this groundbreaking biography. Even today remembered primarily as the mentor and lover of Robert Mapplethorpe, the once infamous photographer, Wagstaff, in fact, had an incalculable—and largely overlooked—influence on the world of contemporary art and photography, and on the evolution of gay identity in the latter part of the twentieth century.  

Born in New York City in 1921 into a notable family, Wagstaff followed an arc that was typical of a young man of his class. He attended both Hotchkiss and Yale, served in the navy, and would follow in step with his Ivy League classmates to the "gentleman's profession," as an ad executive on Madison Avenue. With his unmistakably good looks, he projected an aura of glamour and was cited by newspapers as one of the most eligible bachelors of the late 1940s. Such accounts proved deceiving, for Wagstaff was forced to live in the closet, his homosexuality only revealed to a small circle of friends. Increasingly uncomfortable with his career and this double life, he abandoned advertising, turned to the formal study of art history, and embarked on a radical personal transformation that was in perfect harmony with the tumultuous social, cultural, and sexual upheavals of the 1960s.

Accordingly, Wagstaff became a curator, in 1961, at Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum, where he mounted both "Black, White, and Gray"—the first museum show of minimal art—and the sculptor Tony Smith's first museum show, while lending his early support to artists Andy Warhol, Ray Johnson, and Richard Tuttle, among many others. Later, as a curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, he brought the avant-garde to a regional museum, offending its more staid trustees in the process.

After returning to New York City in 1972, the fifty-year-old Wagstaff met the twenty-five-year-old Queens-born Robert Mapplethorpe, then living with Patti Smith. What at first appeared to be a sexual dalliance became their now historic lifelong romance, in which Mapplethorpe would foster Wagstaff's own burgeoning interest in contemporary photography and Wagstaff would help secure Mapplethorpe's reputation in the art world. In spite of their profound class differences, the artistic union between the philanthropically inclined Wagstaff and the prodigiously talented Mapplethorpe would rival that of Stieglitz and O’Keefe, or Rivera and Kahlo, in their ability to help reshape contemporary art history.

Positioning Wagstaff's personal life against the rise of photography as a major art form and the simultaneous formation of the gay rights movement, Philip Gefter's absorbing biography provides a searing portrait of New York just before and during the age of AIDS. The result is a definitive and memorable portrait of a man and an era.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • November 2014
  • ISBN 978-0-87140-437-4
  • 6.5 × 9.6 in / 480 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Endorsements & Reviews

“I just couldn't stop reading this book!…Sam Wagstaff was the ultimate collector—of talent, of beauty, of silver, of boys. He had everything: looks, taste, money. He almost invented the idea of photography as art, valuable art worth collecting. This is a book not only about the New York art scene of the 70s but also about an entire generation.” — Edmund White, author of Genet: A Biography

“Sam Wagstaff was a leonine figure who stood at the intersection of gay life and the art world and brought glamor and daring to both. Philip Gefter's eloquent biography captures the challenges and the thrills of this dramatic life. It is a smart, sexy biography of a brilliant, charismatic man; it is also a portrait of a time when our ideas of art and our attitudes toward sexuality were in extraordinary flux.” — Andrew Solomon, National Book Award-winning author of Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity

“Gefter delivers the most persuasive account yet of how Wagstaff encouraged a small coterie of likeminded collectors… who raised vintage photographs from quaint curiosities to a ‘serious’ artistic medium. Mapplethorpe was the inadvertent catalyst of this historic shift.” — Martin Filler, The New York Review of Books

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