Review by Dan Odenwald
Rating: (4 out of 5)
Saturday, 10/13/2007, 9:00 PM
Feature presentation, $10 at Goethe Institut Inter Nationes
A COMPELLING AND illuminating documentary, Black White + Gray describes the relationship between influential art collector Sam Wagstaff and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. With interviews from rocker Patti Smith, writer Dominick Dunne and archival footage of the subjects themselves, the doc is much more than a talky intimate portrait. Rather, it gives viewers a rare glimpse into the stuff of urban lore: the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s and ’80s.
Like the fabulous Andy Warhol doc Ric Burns made for PBS last year, Black White + Gray paints a vivid picture of the rock- and drug-fueled milieu. Filled with strange and enigmatic characters, who often lived life too hard, the film centers on Wagstaff. Born into Central Park privilege, he rejects the closeted 1950s life of debutante balls and a corporate job, choosing instead the sexually liberated art world. There, he meets his kindred spirit, Mapplethorpe, and the two push the boundaries of art, sexuality and convention.
Though Mapplethorpe, with his erotic pictures of nude men, is better known today — thanks largely to the controversy that surrounded his work — Wagstaff, his lover and collaborator, was an artist in his own right. A master curator and collector, Wagstaff amassed an entire museum of photographs, which he often bought at extravagant prices to the shock of fellow patrons. Wagstaff literally set the world of collected photography ablaze and ushered in its legitimacy as a serious art form.
A polished figure with many hidden sides, Wagstaff easily traversed the stuffy salons of the Upper East Side and downtown sex clubs, where he and Mapplethorpe played. In one passage, Dunne recounts seeing a drunk Wagstaff stumbling down the street – unrecognizable as the dashing man he knew from uptown dinner parties. Indeed, Wagstaff once famously told a fellow collector, ”There’s so much about me you’ll never know.”
Yet it’s precisely the many sides of Sam Wagstaff that writer and director James Crump seeks to present. Like the images he snatched up and horded, Black White + Gray enables viewers to peer into hidden worlds. Wagstaff consumed life in giant gulps, and drugs and indiscriminate sex eventually cost him everything. Yet the film never shies away from this fact, and the resulting effect is a fascinating tale of a thoroughly uncommon life. — Dan Odenwald