No Gray Areas Here


Published: March 2, 2011

James Crump’s 2007 documentary, “Black, White, + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe,” achieves two things. First, it reveals how the lives of two of New York’s visionary renegades truly imitated their art. Second, it re-establishes curator Sam Wagstaff as one of the most underrated art icons of the 20th century. Yet, the main theme  is just how dark the relationship between Wagstaff, an eccentric, golden boy from Central Park South, and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, a kid from blue-collar Queens, could really get amidst a mask of so-called love.

On March 11 at 7 p.m., the Morgan Library and Museum will host a free screening of Crump’s documentary as a partner to the museum’s newest exhibition, “Mannerism and Modernism: The Kasper Collection of Drawings and Photographs.” The Morgan is certainly a worthy screening location for such an intimate film; “Black, White, + Gray” belongs in Pierpont Morgan’s infamous library just as much as any ancient text. An official selection of the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival and the 2007 Seattle International Film Festival, the documentary itself has no bells and whistles nor does it need them. Everything it needs is right there between Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe to be shared with all.

“Black, White, + Gray” tells the fairytale story of Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe’s budding professional and romantic relationship during the 1970s in New York. Wagstaff specialized in collecting contemporary art like Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns. His most famous exhibit, “Black, White, + Gray,” a collection of monochromatic works, and his emphasis on minimalism, shook the art world and inspired pop culture gems from the film “My Fair Lady” to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball held at the Plaza Hotel, to Vogue’s signature black-and-white photo shoots.

Despite Mapplethorpe’s established reputation as a provocative photographer, the main star is Wagstaff. The discussion of Mapplethorpe in the film only accentuates the inner demons Wagstaff toyed with in his life; an artist’s palette of sex, drugs and his experience as a homosexual in the 1970s and ’80s. If it were not for Wagstaff, there would be no Mapplethorpe. “Black, White, + Gray” is ultimately a memorial to Wagstaff and a remembrance of an art curator who gave so much but received so little, up until now. Wagstaff deserves to have his face carved in the Mt. Rushmore of the New York City art scene along with others like Mapplethorpe, Warhol, Rothko and Pollock.

Mapplethorpe was 26 years old to Wagstaff’s 51 when they first met, a theme etched deeply in the rest of the film. This “opposites attract” notion of teacher and student highlights some crucial questions as to what happened to their relationship over time. Wagstaff took Mapplethorpe under his wing, showing the younger artist his vast collection of ethnographic and medical photography. But this act was not repaid in kind by Mapplethorpe. The film almost makes Mapplethorpe out to be the greedy man who took advantage of Wagstaff and refused to let anything get in the way of his success.

As the AIDS outbreak of the 1980s began to take hold, Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe tragically fell to the disease, a point in the film that is sincerely touched upon and in a way reconciles all of the past troubles each man experienced alone and with each other. Just as the film begins with Wagstaff, so too does it end with his passing in 1987.

For a look back at a relationship that was both cause and effect of the New York arts scene of their era, don’t miss the Morgan’s upcoming screening of “Black, White, + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe.”