I’m thinking about Sam Wagstaff today.
I have a phantom art book. I can see this book clearly, and can browse it in my mind. It has a plain silver toned, glossy dustjacket with the name WAGSTAFF in big black fantastic letters on its 2” spine. On it’s front, the tiny word “silver” appears in a simple black non-serif typeface, like a little obvious mystery. It has a monumental presence in my own collection of books, and I like pretending that the more I learn about Sam Wagstaff, the more real the book becomes. WAGSTAFF — The book that should be.
Btw, I love the idea that Sam Wagstaff was so much better looking and perfect for playing the part of his own life than ANY ACTOR EVER COULD BE. That seems so cosmically right.
January 14, 1987 was the day that Sam Wagstaff died. It was over two decades ago, and more than enough time for someone to have produced a biography of one of the greatest New Yorkers ever. That has not happened… and the book in my mind is all I have — and since noone else has one either, in a funny way the book in my mind is all anyone has. Lately I wonder if there is someone out there working on a biography of Sam Wagstaff, paralleling my own thoughts. Anyone out there?
You won’t find too much googling him, bookwise. There are books on the city he lived in, books on those he knew, books on the arts he promoted by his collectings, books on so many lesser beings. Countless books on lesser men and have been written. Every day, books on lesser souls are written and read. Books on absolute hoaxes are written and read. Fictions with less story are written and read.
Sam is known partly for his photography collecting, which defined photography collecting for all time. Long story. He was also (arguably perhaps) the person most responsible for an art driven advertising campaign (via the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, his lover and friend) that in a completely New York way — a way unequaled since — an advertising campaign that advertised and defined the underground glossy elegant stylish nature of the gay sex scene (and not just any gay sexual scene, the New York City 1970s 1980s gay sexual scene) at it’s most graphic and unforgettable. It is hard to imagine a better advertisement for the sexual underground than the lifestyle and photographs Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff unleashed upon the city and the world. It was classy and nasty in the best ways. Supposedly, Sam Wagstaff hated advertising — an industry he was involved with earliest in his professional career — but it sure seems like that’s what he ended up doing all along. Sneaky?
He was a man-witch and a WASP. I wonder if the reason that there is no biography of Sam Wagstaff could have anything to do with the idea that — like it was a rare occurrence for him to even have happened — it is equally rare to find someone who can/could see him as a whole without falling prey to your own issues and biases. Waspy people aren’t into graphic depictions of gay sexual events and portraits and the undergrounders cannot get what someone could possibly see in some old silver. You know really, like oh, stupid old silver… yawn, like, someone who fully appreciates American silver from the 19th century just might not get the sometimes icky reality of the sexual portraiture. And it seems like most people who saw the art in Mapplethorpe’s work, and even see the art in full on modern minimalist art, just cannot see the inarguable beauty and craftsmanship of imaginative silverwork — silverwork that Sam actually slept with like a lover in one instance. There is no more of that silver that will ever be made, ever, and it is beautiful, but if you listened to some people, you’d never know it. Each side has it’s own issues whech seem to make it harder for a whole and true picture of Sam to have emerged. More than most I can think of, he personified the story about the blind men and the elephant. People can see something in Sam, but few can see all comfortably. He is known for being so many things for people who interacted with him, so many real and genuine and genuinely outrageous things. You know, genuine. Fist-up-your-ass, cuddle-the-silver genuine. Defiantly genuine.
In Sam Wagstaff’s New York City in the mid seventies, it truly was the best of times and the worst of times. President Ford told the city to DROP DEAD — fiscally the city was in horrible shape — close to bankruptcy — yet the coolest scene was alive in ways later scenes not so much been since. It was the sparkly golden age of the Bee Gees, David Bowie (Fame — what a time for that song), Vicki Sue Robinson and Andrea True Connection. I only wish I could have experienced New York City then.
He was like the First President of Porn all holed up in his classical white spaceship apartment — even his name SAM WAGSTAFF sounds like both a political name and a porn name, and the two Sams (president and porn) flicker like a tricky lenticular picture, the two polar extremes cohabitating effortlessly in his life, constantly replacing each other — overlapping, nudging each other — extreme opposites transcending by alchemy, to the music of Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony. Do the Hustle!
The elegantly witty deco apartment building One Fifth Avenue — ONE FIFTH AVENUE, let that sink in alittle (One Fifth Avenue of the worldknown Fifth Avenue, known throughout the world Fifth Avenue, known perhaps more than any other street in the world Fifth Avenue, the ONE, 1, 1 Fifth Avenue of the one New York City of the ONE world)— was Sam Wagstaff’s Mount Olympus. His faceted-like-a-jewel penthouse apartment was his White House. From it he ventured and collected the best (for that was his art) like the best New Yorker you could ever make up. You hear him talk in an old video and hear art/photography politician. You could never make up anyone better than Sam Wagstaff. He was a character called THE COLLECTOR.
He had a face that once sculpted, could have (and still can) comfortably exist next to any historical figure’s bust. He had Lincoln in him, he had Redford in him, he had such a frighteningly timeless visage. There is a double portrait by Scavullo — of Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe that seems like a photographic version of Mount Rushmore, if Mount Rushmore was in New York City.
I want to contribute some of my own thoughts about Sam and what he did to what is out there to be known. Sam Wagstaff is the kind of person where you find that the more you know, the more you want to know. Yeah, he was a super private man, and there are few of his contemporaries left (many died of AIDS), but is there no more digging to be done? Has Sam Wagstaff been fully dug? Is what we have now all that there is to dig? I mean dig in both ways — can you dig it?
I can’t help but feel akin to a man who was known for seeing greatness in a subject before others like some art world handicapper. I after all, call myself a lensjockey. He wanted to be first to collect in a scene, to be the defining voice of the subject — his impression/vision being the first, (and cheapest and easiest) to produce. Collecting was partly an investment and test of his own mind for him. In my own photography, I’ve tried to find subjects with my own compasses and hoped that my pictures would lead others on and grow in worth, exactly as Sam wanted his collections to grow in worth and scope of influence. I have wanted to be like him ever since a lover/photographer named Bernard Warkentin brought him to my attention almost twenty years ago. He had his own Wagstaff story to tell me, he’d been in the spaceship apartment. Bernard himself has a beautiful singular collection of eighties portraits.
This is a portrait Bernard shot of me around 1989. He was a photographer who really saw something in me, and we'd talk alot about art and we had all these projects we were gonna do. And we talked about Sam. So New York City. He was another collector.
This is all what I have been thinking about for weeks and I am posting it today in honor of the man who inspired me so much, (at least that much) on the anniversary of his death, January 14, 1987. You can’t say Sam Wagstaff doesn’t deserve it.