Friday, June 29, 2007

Silverdocs: Black White + Gray

Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe

Dear Silverdocs Programmers,
If you’re trying to maximize your audiences, don’t schedule two New York City art films at the same time. The Gates was scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. Given its running time is 93 minutes, that gives us an end time of approximately 8:20 p.m. Black White + Gray was scheduled to begin at 8:30 p.m. Given that advance ticket holders lose their seats to the standby line if they do not occupy said seats 15 minutes prior to the start of the film, that means advanced ticket holders for Black White + Gray needed to have their cheeks in the seats by 8:15 p.m. Even assuming that such ticket holders would be so vulgar as to walk out of The Gates five minutes before the end, that would only be the beginning of their travails. Black White + Gray was screened in the Round House Theater, which is as far as one might ever have to shlep to see a film during this festival. So not only would they miss the last five minute of The Gates and the fabulously entertaining Q & A with Antonio Ferrera, they would have to walk too far for seats so uncomfortable and lacking in popcorn. I risked it. I purchased advanced tickets for both. I did not leave The Gates early and I stayed for the Q & A, in part because I wanted to and in part because I was sardined in the dead center of the last row in Theater 2. I did hoof it from Theater 2 to the Round House Theater. Black White + Gray had already started. But the headsetted AFI mensch said I could still go in. I sneaked in the far door and sat in the front row on the last seat. Were this seat as comfy as those of the valhalla known as Theater 3, my complaints would end here. But it was not. It was plastic and uncomfortable and this was the seventh film I was to see in a matter of five days. I told you that long story to make this small point: Much of the sold out audience at The Gates would have happily attended Black White + Gray had you not scheduled them too close together.
Thank you,

At the moment that I sat down, having prepared my notebook and pen in the hallway, a voiceover was describing the mark Sam Wagstaff left on photography. Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe were lovers. Patti Smith spent much of her life with Sam and Robert. Sam Wagstaff designed Robert Mapplethorpe’s campaign. The only time Patti Smith’s relationship with Robert and Sam was remotely acrimonious was when Robert Mapplethorpe got annoyed with Sam Wagstaff for taking Patti Smith’s picture. Somehow it felt unfaithful. In footage of Patti Smith performing she wears a t-shirt that says, “Fuck the Clock.” Sam was eventually totally forgotten and unrecognized. Interviews start by showing the individual with a subtitle for their name and role. Then their voices play over visuals, usually still photographs. It is a very traditional format. It appears to have been shot on video; it looks digital and grainy in an unflattering way. Projecting on this huge screen is not helping it. It looks like something appropriate for a PBS special, or for continual play at the Getty Museum. Interviews transition from friends who knew him during his hey day to people who knew him in his youth. They talk about his relationship with his mother and his boarding school days at Hotchkiss, listing his famous classmates. He was in the navy. He worked in advertising but found it phony. He didn’t like talking about the 1950s, perhaps because of the suppression of homosexuals. Scavullo’s book On Men. Dominick Dunne is interviewed about how he met Sam while working on a book about Anne & William Woodward The Two Mrs. Greenvilles. Sam had to lead a compartmentalized life. Wagstaff started photographing self-portraits, nude and semi-nude. Maybe this wouldn’t be so good for PBS afterall. Offner at NYU’s art history department talks about Sam’s photos. Bernard Berensen. Sam went through phases. First he was into Gauguin, then minimalism, then Tony Smith, then photography; what was new, good, and resonated with him. Sam was a curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum ( in Connecticut, the oldest art museum in the United States. At that time, the 1960s, curators were more like artists. Curators were figuring it out as it was happening. There was not so much of a PhD state of mind. In 1962 Sam put on an abstract impressionist exhibit at the Wadsworth. It was covered in Time. He followed this with an exhibit called Black White & Gray. It had a huge impact on film. The black and white costumes in My Fair Lady were inspired by it as was Truman Capote, who hosted the Black and White Ball. A Galanos spread was shot in the exhibition. He put on a retrospective of Tony Smith, covered by Time, as well as retrospectives of Tuttle, Michael Heizer (, and Agnes Martin. Patti Smith says Sam was violently expressive while on dope. He held drug parties and experimented with sex and perception. Sam was a catalyst for the intertwining of art and drugs and music and clubs. Patti Smith says Sam brought art credibility to punk and new wave. Sam had a nonsanctimonious spirituality. Robert was uneducated and lower class. A voice over of Robert Mapplethorpe says his home was a good place to come from because it was a good place to leave. Sam and Robert were a double act, a pair of characters who gave to one another. They had well-tailored complimentary strengths. They were like 1890s dandies. Robert was Sam revealing something about himself. Robert found a cash cow and had no sense of kindness. Robert loved nothing but himself. Sam shrunk when Robert was around. Robert could manipulate people well. Robert would not have had a career without Sam and Sam would not have had such a wild art collection without Robert. Sam became the curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts. In 1971 he commissioned Dragged Mass Displacement an earthwork by Michael Heizer. Sam was forced to remove it and replace the lawn. Sam called it, “A triumph for manicured grass over fine art.” Sam collected anonymous photos. Intertitle: Sam buys Robert a studio. Sam was one of the first people to appreciate anonymous photography, also known as vernacular photographs. Previously this genre didn’t have much cache. Dick Cavett talk show interview with Sam. These photos are like art, they are art, but they’re not art. Through a dark alchemical process fantasies are created. Souls are captured. Photography is the least decorative medium. The photos Sam collected create a portrait of himself. [The images are primary created by moving a film camera across a still photograph, like the Ken Burns Civil War technique of enlivening old material.] He published a book of photographs. [The cover of this book would make an amazing quilt.] He said this book was about pleasure, like watching people dance through an open window. Wallace Stevens said a great poem defies the intelligence completely. [Finding the source of this quote defies the intelligence equally completely.] Cecil Beaton’s portrait of a woman with a flower. Art doesn’t have to carry a pack on its back. Possessing mattered to Sam. Sam was attracted to younger mirror images. He was interested in the intent of the photographer, for example, Lewis Carrol’s photo of a half-naked little girl. He was interested in photos of sex and death. He collected pictures of battlefields, executions, medical, ethnographic, historic. He saw the grotesque photos in an abstract sense as provocations.Sam’s position gave Robert cache. In a video of Robert he says he makes an art statement with a feeling of pornography. Sam collected erotic photography especially male nudes. These were sources ideas for Robert’s work. Robert says because of the sexual pictures people hate his other photos. Robert exploited his subjects. Sam was entranced by the importance of black in Robert’s photo of a tulip. He would hold up another photo with black in it and say Robert’s was blacker. Robert set a refined stage for a rough subject. Sam was in purgatory. He said there are many things you will never know about me. If you don’t want to see one of my pictures, you can’t. Intertitle: In 1984 Sam sold his photo collection to the Getty Museum for $5M. Now the highest price for the sale of a single photo is $3M. Robert became ill. Sam became ill. Sam started collecting American silver. He ended as an old man, unshaven, with AIDS, dragging bags of silver to his apartment. In January 1987 Sam died. The art establishment was decimated by AIDS. [Names with dates fade in and out all over the screen.] Sam’s will left everything to Robert. In 1989 Robert sold Sam’s silver collection. Robert loved Sam’s money as much as he loved Sam. Insert of death certificates. The perfect moment. The Mapplethorpe Foundation should be the Mapplethorpe-Wagstaff Foundation. Patti Smith reads a song as the text of the song is shown over portrait of Sam and Robert. More interviews over the credits. The photos tell a different story when put together than all alone. Credits continue over out of focus pictures.

There was no Q & A after the film. :(

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