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Visual arts

Wagstaff wins

Nearly 40 years after the dust-up, DIA honors curator

Robert Mapplethorpe by Gerard Malanga.
Sam Wagstaff by Francesco Scavullo.
Patti Smith by Sam Wagstaff.
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Published 5/14/2008

Viewing the collective photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith and Sam Wagstaff is scary. Looking at their faces, portraits of three who shared an iconic style and a grotesque, nearly Hollywood sense of vanity (seemingly modeled by Wagstaff's monstrous beauty), you get the uncanny impression that you're really seeing one psyche — an enfant terrible, defiantly narcissistic, living large in spite of loneliness and despair.

As with Warhol and the Factory, the camera captured it all. It became a witness and player in the production of fame and fine art in the lives of Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe and Smith in New York City and Detroit from the '60s through the '80s.

It's about time that Sam Wagstaff, iconoclastic art curator and collector, be the subject of an evening at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where he worked as contemporary curator from 1968 to 1971. The evening will feature the Michigan premiere of a new documentary about his life with Mapplethorpe, Black, White + Gray, and offer an opportunity to revisit and recognize the contributions that he made during his brief stint in Detroit.

Wagstaff's life was what legends are made of. The son of Sam Wagstaff Sr., a wealthy New York lawyer, and Polish émigré Olga Piorkowska, a former fashion designer, he grew up in a posh apartment overlooking Central Park South. As such, he followed a predictable path from prep school to the Navy to Yale, then entered the exploding world of advertising in the '50s. Then came an abrupt turnaround, when he went back to school to study art history at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. The rest is a tantalizing history.

It now seems as if he was catapulted — with the aid of an influential coterie of friends — straight out of grad school into a major curatorial job at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Conn., America's oldest public art museum. There, he blossomed as a curator and produced three exhibitions that continue to resonate in contemporary art. Most importantly, in 1968, he curated Black, White + Gray, which some art historians claim was the heralding exhibition of American minimalism. Included in the exhibition were Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Tony Smith.

After seven somewhat controversial years in conservative Hartford, Wagstaff came to Detroit. While he was here for only three years, he had what many observers of the time have called a transformative impact of the city's art scene. His Other Ideas, a visionary exhibition of new directions in art, presented the work of 34 artists, including Richard Tuttle, Carl Andre, Nam June Paik, Linda Benglis and Walter de Maria, to name familiar notables. He also exhibited a retrospective of the work of sculptor and performance artist Robert Morris.

Some observers say that Wagstaff acted as if he were slumming; nevertheless, he became ardently involved in Detroit's Cass Corridor art scene, particularly championing and collecting the work of artist Gordon Newton. His short stay and hasty departure was perhaps precipitated by a confrontation with DIA's board of trustees.

Wagstaff had commissioned artist Michael Heizer to create an earthwork on the DIA's manicured north lawn. "Dragged Mass Geometric" (1971) consisted of an enormous 35-ton rectangular volume of granite, dragged by two bulldozers, one driven by the artist himself. It was supposed to create a path of uprooted earth and, once in position, find its place in the ground. Instead, it destroyed the immaculate museum lawn. Photographs of it lying amid tangled steel cables and mounds of dirt are actually quite beautiful, suggestive of the Mark di Suvero's sculpture "Tom," which Wagstaff personally lent to the museum (it was later purchased by the DIA). As with Diego Rivera's controversial Rockefeller murals, one wishes there had been someone present with patience and vision, besides Wagstaff, to preserve it. The board of trustees ordered it removed and the lawn repaired.

According to Jan Van Der Marck, who later became curator of contemporary art in Detroit, Wagstaff fled angrily to New York. During the next week, famed collector Robert Scull was scheduled to give a lecture on Heizer; instead, he joined Wagstaff's boycott of the DIA by refusing to come. Hawkins Ferry, DIA director at the time, asked Van Der Marck to pinch-hit for Scull, and after getting the blessing from Heiser he lectured that week, causing a rupture between Wagstaff and Van Der Marck that never healed. Wagstaff did come back and resume his duties but resigned before the year was up. He was quoted as saying, "It was a triumph for manicured grass over fine art!"

Returning to New York, Wagstaff immediately turned away from painting and sculpture. He began a revolutionary collection of vernacular photographs: snapshots by unknowns, early landscapes, postal cards, and medical photography; the derelict photography now hunted by a cult of collectors was considered throwaway until Wagstaff paid attention. (Wagstaff later sold his photography collection to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1984.) He also met Robert Mapplethorpe and began a Pygmalion-like relationship with him and punk rocker Patti Smith.

Wagstaff was both lover and mentor to the young photographer Mapplethorpe, instrumental in deciding the direction his art would take, as he had been for other artists, including Richard Tuttle. Wagstaff was also his financial patron and provided him access into art's loftiest circles. Most commentators in the film agree that the pair had a symbiotic relationship, though some detractors consider Mapplethorpe more a parasite. Wagstaff died of AIDS in 1987, during a time the devastating virus was claiming so many brilliant lives, including, a couple years later, Mapplethorpe.

In conjunction with the celebratory screening of James Crump's engaging documentary, there will also be a cocktail party, a strolling supper and a panel discussion led, appropriately, by Mark Rosenthal, the DIA's new adjunct curator of contemporary art, essentially Wagstaff's old job. The panelists include Tuttle; Gordon Baldwin, who has written extensively on the history of photography; and gallery-owner Susanne Feld Hilberry, who worked with Wagstaff at the DIA, an influential presence in the Detroit art world herself. It promises to be one hell of a memorable evening.

Unfortunately the event occurs while the Detroit art community grieves over the sudden death of Matthew Blake, one of Detroit's most brilliant young artists and human beings, a good friend of Hilberry's. All of us are painfully in sympathy with Matt's wife, Hazel Blake, their family and friends.

"Black White + Gray: A Celebration of Sam Wagstaff" begins at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 21, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; call 313-833-4020 for tickets. The film shows at 7:30 p.m. and the panel discussion follows at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 per person, $40 at the door (use the John R loggia entrance).

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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