Sam Wagstaff with Tony Smith at the Wadsworth Atheneum, mid-1960s. (Courtesy of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Courtesy of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)

Let us begin with the subtitle. One assumes this is Philip Gefter’s way of introducing Sam Wagstaff, a lesser-known personality in the art world, by association with the better-known Robert Mapplethorpe, a controversial photographer of some renown. In another time, the author might have more accurately titled the book “Notes on Some Highways and Byways in the Art of Photography” instead of “Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorp.” But we are in a social-media age, expected to know everybody’s links to everybody else.

So it is up to this reviewer to explain that Wagstaff was a museum curator who in the 1960s and ’70s played an important role in furthering the cause of photography and modern art at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., and the Detroit Institute of Arts. There are obvious parallels between Wagstaff’s predecessor, the Atheneum’s daring and innovative director Chick Austin, who served from 1927 to ’44. Both had an eye for talent, both gravitated toward experimentation, both championed unpopular or neglected causes, and both came from well-to-do backgrounds. Austin was well-groomed and handsome. Wagstaff was tall, rangy, went to the right schools, wore the right clothes and was handsome, too, although rather too much is made of that here.

As a personality, Wagstaff was every museum board’s dream: charming, polished, well-bred and with all the right frames of reference. Whether, if he had stayed in Hartford, he might have carved out the same reputation as the distinguished Austin is not clear. Early in his time there, he came up with a fascinating exhibition, “Black, White, and Gray,” showcasing the work of Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly, among others, that gave an indication of what he might have accomplished had he stayed. But Wagstaff left after seven years, joining the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1968. There his growing interest in minimalism, conceptual art and earthworks hit a snag after Michael Heizer, a young “landscape artist,” constructed an earthwork that made mincemeat of the museum’s lawn.

In 1971, after three years, Wagstaff left Detroit and moved to New York, where, as a man of independent means, he curated shows and wrote articles. He took an increasing interest in photography, which seemed to him a neglected art. By then he was 50 and had long had to deal with the difficulties of being a gay male in a socially correct world. He is portrayed here as the emotionally stunted offspring of loving but distant parents. He was leading, Gefter writes, a “double life.”

At that moment, he met Robert Mapplethorpe.

“Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe: A Biography” by Philip Gefter. (Liveright/Liveright)

In 1971 Mapplethorpe was 25 and experimenting as a photographer with that complicated mixture of pornographic constructions juxtaposed with Catholic iconography that became a marked feature of his controversial work. He was street smart and extremely poor. He liked to take naked portraits of himself covered in studs and jewelry. He had what Gefter calls a “mischievous sensuality.” He was “marvelous looking,” with a “Mick Jagger-like androgyny.” He and Wagstaff became lovers almost immediately.

Gefter notes that, for each man, a certain self-interest was involved. For Mapplethorpe, the advantages of having a well-placed and wealthy sponsor were obvious. For Wagstaff, the motivation was a genuine feeling that the young man’s work had a special quality that deserved to be appreciated. Wagstaff had had other relationships with young men in whom he lost interest when he lost interest in their work. This time it was apparently different, having to do with Mapplethorpe’s lack of inhibitions and his lover’s sexual prudery. Mapplethorpe persuaded Wagstaff to let himself be photographed lightly clad or naked, and they both became voyeurs of their own sexual performance.

Gefter discusses the issue of male nudity, including a comment by gallery owner Marcuse Pfeifer in 1978 about “the ubiquity of the female nude figure and the scarcity of the male one.” (This would have come as a surprise to all those Greek and Roman sculptors.) There are some possible explanations. For one thing, male organs are not always seen as charming. And of course tastes change; in the Middle Ages codpieces made the phallus look resplendent even when it wasn’t.

A more important matter is the assertion on which this biography is based: that photography did not become a high art until Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe made use of it to reflect their own complicated, not to mention sadomasochistic, tastes. The argument runs that the growing interest in photography was a direct result of the rise of the gay rights movement and all those gay men who championed photos of naked maledom with “their newly liberated sensibilities and willing gazes.”

It is true that photography did not begin to be valued on equal terms with painting and sculpture until the 1960s and ’70s. Yet when one considers the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, Nadar, Eugène Atget, Edward Steichen, Man Ray and all the other photographers who came before — well, one is reminded of the confident assertion made by Karlheinz Stockhausen at Harvard in 1949 that great music began with him.

How much more persuasive the narrative would be if it had been argued that Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe, intelligent and complex figures who both died tragically, made important contributions to the art of taking pictures. And it had been left at that.

Secrest’s new book is a biography of the surrealist dress designer Elsa Schiaparelli.


Before and After Mapplethorpe:

A Biography

By Philip Gefter

Liveright. 458 pp. $35