The Thrill of the Chase: The Wagstaff Collection at the Getty

Sam Wagstaff in his apartment.
Sam Wagstaff in his apartment. (Credit: Arnold Newman)

On the evening of March 14, the spacious rotunda of the Getty Museum was overflowing with more than 900 invited guests who had turned out for the opening of the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective The Perfect Medium. Spilling out into the open walkway leading to the lower-level photography galleries were museum curators, collectors (including septuagenarians like me), dealers, supporters of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, bearded hipsters, members of the LGBT community dressed in business attire, and those ubiquitous outliers trussed up in full leathers and chains and amply tatted — in other words, a typical Los Angeles art opening.

Less noticed toward the back of the galleries was the other photography exhibition opening that evening: almost 150 images from the famed Sam Wagstaff Collection, the vibrant heart of the mammoth Getty photographic collection.

The Thrill of the Chase

Both exhibitions, which will be up through July 31, were curated by Paul Martineau, who curated the revelatory 2009 Getty exhibition of Paul Outerbridge, Command Performance. Martineau also wrote the insightful catalog essay that positions Wagstaff and his collection as central to  photographic history.

Wagstaff was an influential curator of contemporary art at several East Coast museums in the 1960s, but in the early 1970s, he rather abruptly changed course and gravitated to collecting photography — just as rare 19th century photo albums began to emerge from the depths of private collections and the bowels of museum archives. Wagstaff's full immersion into photography sparked interest from other curators and museums. Within a few years, at least a nodding acquaintance of photography was a marker of hipness in the larger art world. Wagstaff's love affair with rising photographer Robert Mapplethorpe became emblematic of the newfound power of the gay art and photography community that found a new voice after Stonewall.

Edmund Teske
Edmund Teske's Mineral Baths, Big Sur, California, 1967

The larger story of Manhattan’s art scene and its rapid evolution in the 1960s and 1970s, along with the prominence of gay artists, collectors and dealers, is told in compellingly rich detail in Philip Gefter’s Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe.

4-Screen shot 2016-05-30 at 11.18.24 AM

This page-turner biography is not only a rich account of the curator/collector, who, more than anyone else, was responsible for the acceptance of photography as an art on par with painting and sculpture, but also presents a window into New York’s gay lifestyle, from its highs of empowerment in pop culture to its lows in the bathhouses along the West Side Highway. Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe both succumbed to AIDS before the end of the 1980s.

In 1978, Wagstaff appeared on a panel with other collectors and photography dealers in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., to discuss the emerging guidelines and aesthetics of the photography-collecting market. At the time, there was still heated debate in the museum and art world about whether photography could, in fact, be called art because it was a “mechanical, chemical process.” A few years later, when Sotheby’s and Christie’s opened photography departments and began offering works at auction, the debate dissolved in a cascade of money as single images by Weston, Stieglitz, Strand, Moholy and Man Ray were hammered down in the six-figure range.

Edward Weston's Bananas
Edward Weston's Bananas and Orange, April 1937

Here are two clips of Wagstaff speaking at that Corcoran panel:

Not only were museums beginning to show photography in standalone exhibitions, but photographs were also included in thematic exhibitions of major 20th century art movements such as Cubism, Expressionism and Constructivism. (Photographers of the German Bauhaus School were then re-evaluated as major artists, not just as “craftsmen” ancillary to painting and sculpture.) The sure sign of the art form’s success was the emergence of new fields of academic study and criticism, as well as published monographs that had previously been reserved for painters and sculptors.

Wagstaff didn’t just ride the crest of this new wave of collectors; he surfed at the front of the pack. His gentrified background, as well as money from several familial inheritances, gave him access to major 19th century collections and photo albums several years before the market exploded with cash. With his curatorial credentials and his handsome and gentlemanly mien, Wagstaff became the go-to guy for interviews about the hot photography-collecting market, even appearing on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980.

In the exhibition monograph The Thrill of the Chase, Martineau’s essay, “A Curious Vice,” along with an introduction by Getty curator emeritus Weston Naef and an essay by critic Eugenia Parry, place Wagstaff at the summit of the photo-world hierarchy. Martineau's essay is much more than a historic overview; he digs inside the collector's mind, making you wonder how the rightful place of photography as "art" could have been hotly debated for so much of the 20th century, and why it took Wagstaff, someone with art-world credentials, to open the eyes of the largely indifferent museum community.

In a 50-minute video, Gefter discusses his biography of Wagstaff at New York’s School of the Visual Arts. (His book is a valuable record of photography’s emergence and acceptance into the mainstream art world, but if you lack time to read the book, this video is a thoughtful, eloquent meditation on that time, focusing on the gay artists, curators and collectors who spearheaded the movement.) He discusses in detail Wagstaff’s relationship with Mapplethorpe, and shares some of Mapplethorpe’s controversial homoerotic images, including the notorious X Portfolio. (If you are offended by images of male genitalia and gay sex, I suggest you skip a middle section of the video between 23:18-30:00.)

Martineau is a personal friend, and I’ve followed his many exhibitions at the Getty with keen interest; each has been a measured, thoughtful and always new perspective on the art or artists who are the subjects. When I asked him to respond to a few questions about the Wagstaff Collection and The Thrill of the Chase, he readily assented.

On June 8, 1984, New York photo dealer Daniel Wolf brokered a sale of nine photography collections to the Getty, kick-starting its enviable collection. The most significant of these collections was easily that of Sam Wagstaff, which contains more than 26,000 objects. How did you approach selecting the 147 images that are featured in the current exhibition and catalog?
Paul Martineau: I chose the masterpieces first, then went back to add the more unusual objects and images — the daguerreotypes, the cartes-de-visite, the stereographs, the mug-shot album, the medical photographs, and those by unknown makers. The blending of these works was essential to convey the unique character of the collection.
Wagstaff's background was in curating, first at the Wadsworth Atheneum and then at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. At both institutions, he gravitated toward exhibitions of cutting-edge contemporary artists such as Michael Heizer, Tony Smith, Ellsworth Kelly, John Chamberlin and Andy Warhol. Yet much of his personal photography collection is of 19th century work, images that in the early 1970s were not widely known or appreciated. Why do you think he so obsessively collected these?
Martineau: Wagstaff's tastes were wide ranging.  Shortly after he arrived at the Wadsworth Atheneum, he championed the acquisition of 'The Lady of Shalott,' a tour-de-force by the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt. The style was so out of favor in the early 1960s that Wagstaff felt the need to write an article, a sort of defense for purchasing it. Wagstaff clearly enjoyed finding value where others failed to, and that was certainly the case for photography in the early 1970s. The 19th-century photographer Gustave Le Gray was a relative unknown when Wagstaff began purchasing his prints. Wagstaff marveled at how this master could have been overlooked, saying, ‘It's like leaving Rembrandt out of a history of Western art!’

Hunt's Lady of Shalott
Hunt's The Lady of Shalott

Le Gray's Beech Tree
Le Gray's Beech Tree

During his years as an art-world curator, Wagstaff was not just indifferent to photography as art, but actually openly dismissive of it. According to Weston Naef, Wagstaff had an ‘Aha moment,’ a change of heart, when he saw Naef's exhibition at the Met, 'The Painterly Photograph,' which featured two versions of an iconic Steichen photograph. Can you relate the incident?
Martineau: Wagstaff's dramatic conversion from someone ambivalent about photography to one of its greatest proselytizers occurred in January of 1973, while he was looking at two versions of Steichen's 'The Flatiron.' The softly hued prints, one blue and one green, were on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of 'The Painterly Photograph.' Seized by the realization that he was standing in front of a masterpiece, Wagstaff was forced to admit that it was time for him to take a serious look at photography. He later recalled, ‘It knocked me out. From that moment on, I decided that I wanted to get involved with photography; it was something of great quality that I had overlooked, a whole medium that I didn't know anything about.’


Steichen's Flatiron
Steichen's The Flatiron
Once Wagstaff began collecting photography, it seemed to consume him. You could say he began to buy ‘in bulk’ 19th century albums of images by Julia Margaret Cameron, Hill and Adamson and Nadar, as well as American Civil War portraits and forensic and medical studies. Was he merely obsessive, or did he realize how rare and unappreciated this work was and spot a window of opportunity?
Martineau: It was, I think, a combination of both. Wagstaff was a retired curator in his early fifties without a family to care for; he needed something to do. Once he got rolling, he began to enjoy the attention he received from curators, artists, dealers and the press.
Philip Gefter has noted that many of the men in the burgeoning photography market of the early 1970s were gay: collectors Wagstaff, John Waddell, Paul Walter and Howard Gilman, and dealers George Rinhart, Harry Lunn and Pierre Apraxine, and they were a tightly knit group. Why do you think this was so?
Martineau: They were birds of a feather. Given the level of discrimination gay men faced in other fields, having a career in the arts in an urban area [where other gay men could be found in significant numbers] would have been very appealing.
Wagstaff was a collector as well as a curator in the superheated 1960s NYC art world. Gefter notes that before Wagstaff began collecting photography, he purchased a four-panel assembly of a key Warhol silkscreen from a news photo titled 'Race Riot.' Was this an embryonic exploration or merely a fortuitous congruence?
Martineau: Wagstaff was not content to sit on the sidelines. He wanted to be deeply involved with the art world and have a marked impact on it. The story demonstrates his agency, but it doesn't have anything to do with photography per se.

Warhol's Race Riot
Warhol's Race Riot

As an art curator, Wagstaff was drawn to Minimalism. Is there any sense of this overall aesthetic in his eye as a developing photography collector?
Martineau: Only one great example comes to mind: the salted-paper print 'Thebes, Village of Ghezireh' [1853-54] by John Beasly Greene. The photograph represents a view of the waters of the Nile River in the foreground, a clump of trees in the middle ground, and the horizon in the background in a series of simple forms.

Greene's Thebes
Greene's Thebes

In your introductory essay in the current exhibition catalog, you make a fascinating juxtaposition between one of the most singular photos in the Wagstaff exhibition, William H. Bell’s 'Perched Rock, Rocker Creek, Arizona 1872,' and Minimalist sculptor Michael Heizer's installation 'Levitated Mass' at LACMA.
Martineau: I did not understand the significance of Bell's photograph within the collection at first. When I read that Heizer's father was a prominent archaeologist, it dawned on me that there must have been a linkage in Wagstaff's mind between this unusual geological formation and Heizer's land art.

Bell's Perched Rock...
Bell's Perched Rock...

Heizer's Levitated Mass
Heizer's Levitated Mass

Many photography collectors tend to narrow their focus: a famous collection of images of hands, a collection of portraits of film directors, paper abstractions or photograms. Wagstaff seemed to be not just eclectic, but omnivorous. Do you see a unifying aesthetic to his collecting?
Martineau: Wagstaff was attracted to photographs that had the power to get his imagination going — for example, the photo of a flooded street in Lyon by Louis Froissart [1856] …

Froissart
Froissart's A Flood in Lyon

...or Robert Frank’s photograph of an elegant woman dressed in a satin ball gown and a mink stole entering a building through a revolving door [1952] …

Photo by Robert Frank
Frank's Ball Dress

...or a photo by NASA of an astronaut walking on the surface of the moon in 1971. It’s all fodder for a mind that was eager to spin esoteric tales beyond the frame. His taste for the idiosyncratic — images that surprised him because he had never seen them before — became more pronounced as his collection grew in size.
In discussing the primacy of the history of homoerotic photography, Gefter cites it as impetus to the gay men who transformed the 1970s gay-rights movement into a passion for art photography, and in doing so created acceptance in the straight world of photography as an art form and a viable financial investment.
Martineau: It must have been particularly validating for gay men of this period to feel connected to this artistic lineage. They protected and nurtured it. Otherwise, it may well have been swallowed up by the dark maw of a Dumpster.
Most people who visit the Getty's photography galleries over the next few weeks will be there to see the Mapplethorpe exhibition rather than the Wagstaff exhibition. Which of them do you believe will turn out to be the greater influence in the history of photography?
Martineau: That's a tough call because each made significant contributions in different but related areas. As a collector, Wagstaff helped to expand the canon by valuing works by unknown makers and photographs that were not created as art. As an artist, Mapplethorpe helped to expand the notions of what was possible in art, and his work serves as a visual diary of his life and times.
What has been the greatest satisfaction for you in curating these two simultaneous exhibitions?
Martineau: Seeing how these exhibitions work together to elevate the extraordinary partnership between these two men.

Man Ray's Butterflies
Man Ray's Butterflies

NEXT: In the Land of Edward Sheriff Curtis, Shadowcatcher

 

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