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The Art of Looking

2015 (Liveright)


My first introduction to the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was when I was a teenager, through an older cousin, the same one that introduced me to Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) *


*(I was under-whelmed about David Bowie, given how much air-play "Modern Love" was getting on the radio; but songs like "Ashes to Ashes" and "Fashion" completely and irrevocably revised my initial impression of his incredible body of work.)


Coming of age sexually back in the mid to late´80s, during the AIDS crisis, it was challenging for boys who were bi like me to make sense of our desires (and particularly if we grew up Irish Catholic and went to Jesuit school, but that´s a whole other topic). Music, some of the videos on MTV, books, and art were important guides in helping me explore aspects of my self as they bloomed, within the safe and private domain of my imagination. During a family trip to Chicago in 1989, that same cousin I mentioned earlier took me to see The Perfect Moment at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which ended up being his first major retrospective before he died of AIDS at age 42; as well as the proverbial match that lit a fuse over censorship, obscenity, and federal funding for the arts in America. Neither my cousin nor I knew this at the time that I was standing in front of "Man in Polyester Suit", "Jim and Tom in Sausalito", or "Ken Moody and Robert Sherman". But for me, having the ability to just look at these pictures for as long as I wanted to, in public, was another crucial step in my coming out.


One aspect of Mapplethorpe´s visual vocabulary that continues to intrigue me, more than three decades on since first seeing them, is his almost omniscient gaze to his subjects. Whether that subject is a vase of tulips or a self-portrait, there seems to be a cool, almost classical composition to line, to light and shadows, to the form of the photographic image itself. Mapplethorpe´s art is a provocation, demanding the viewer to gaze with the same relentless intensity of focus as the artist. Besides their beauty and their eroticism, his photographs invite a public conditioned to quickly glance to instead stop and really look.


Looking is an art form, a skill that benefits from nurturing, time, and practice. And while it is indisputable that Mapplethorpe had innate gifts and exceptional artistic ambition, his impact on culture & photography must be credited in no small part to Sam Wagstaff. In the in-depth Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, biographer Philip Gefter thoroughly details this art curator´s complex and contradictory life, and his impact not only on the "shy pornographer" (one of Wagstaff´s affectionate nicknames for Mapplethorpe), but on the entire field of photography.


Given the frenetically visual nature of our culture today, it may be hard to imagine how under-appreciated photography was as an art form just fifty years ago. Because "anyone could take a picture" by simply pointing a camera, the photographic medium was considered inferior to "real" art forms such as painting and sculpture. Photos were simply documentation, such as the portraits of Robert Frank or Diane Arbus; or the landscapes of Ansel Adams. No one thought that photograph had its own history worthy of study, a context similar to how we study and understand paintings. No one thought to educate themselves about different kinds of photographic lenses, or examine the quality of a print, much less examine the subject within all of this variety of form. No one, that is, before the early ´70s, when Wagstaff became the medium´s champion and advocate, as well as curator, collector, and even philosopher.

Gefter contextualizes the shifts in the visual and performing arts leading up to photography´s ascendency, and Wagstaff´s role in it. A handsome and wealthy patrician, Wagstaff served in the navy, restlessly worked in a New York advertising firm, before finding his footing studying Renaissance art in the United States and Europe. Meanwhile, all around him, the vocabulary of art was amidst a profound shift in form and content--from Andy Warhol´s soup cans to John Cage´s 4´33".


During the ´60s, using his leadership at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford and later the Detroit Institute of the Arts, Wagstaff was one of the earliest curators to identify and introduce minimalism as a distinct movement into the national conversation of art. While in retrospect we can see that Wagstaff was astute and prescient, at the time audiences as well as his employers at the museum were not so impressed. Restless and stymied by the constraints of his job, when his father´s death around this time left him a significant inheritance he took this as the moment to strike out on his own in search of something new. A few years later, by the time other curators began taking a more serious interest in minimalism, Wagstaff had already moved into his loft in New York City, obsessively going to auctions, used bookstores, and garage sales, collecting literally thousands of photographs.


And then meeting the young Mapplethorpe. At the time, he and sometime-girlfriend, close friend, and creative muse Patti Smith could no longer afford their room at the Chelsea Hotel, and were living in a room with no shower, toilet, or running water. Wagstaff, twenty-five years his senior, immediately began a decades-long bond with Mapplethorpe that included sex, inspiration, and exceptional material security. The elder benefactor not only gave his handsome and ambitious young artist a Hasselblad, a loft on Bond Street, and financial support; Wagstaff also gave him an invaluable series of contacts into the codes and customs of the art-world. Not that Mapplethorpe was lacking in talent or drive, but the significance of Wagstaff cannot be underestimated.


Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe sprints through contemporary art history without feeling rushed, and Gefter provides extensive research into his subject without making the reader feel bogged down in the details. I was familiar with some of the artistic and philosophical strands outlined here, particularly from the performing arts, but the author is masterful at weaving them together into one harmonious whole. Refreshingly, Gefter also notes the relationship between homosexuality and so much of the art from this period, as so many of the prime movers in the photography, painting, choreography, music of the period were gay. He makes a good argument for the profound personal significance of photography on Wagstaff, connecting his affection for learning everything he could about the medium with his own transition into fully coming out. Gefter also explores the relationship of the Stonewall and the gay rights movement, as well as the onset of the AIDS epidemic (Wagstaff died of the disease at 65 in 1987), impacted Wagstaff & Mapplethorpe in similar and different ways, each one representing, in a way, two different examples of the New York gay community at that time.


In all, Gefter has given us a rewarding and important book. Perhaps Sam Wagstaff´s name is not nearly as familiar as that of Robert Mapplethorpe, but both challenged and influenced how we see, what we see, and what we think of as art today.



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