Sam Wagstaff

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Sam Wagstaff
Samuel Jones Wagstaff Jr.

(1921-11-04)November 4, 1921
DiedJanuary 14, 1987(1987-01-14) (aged 65)
New York City, U.S.
EducationHotchkiss School
Alma materYale University
Institute of Fine Arts
Known forCurator, collector

Samuel Jones Wagstaff Jr. (November 4, 1921 – January 14, 1987) was an American art curator, collector, and the artistic mentor and benefactor of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (who was also his lifetime companion) and poet-punk rocker Patti Smith. Wagstaff is known in part for his support of minimalism, pop art, conceptual art and earthworks, but his aesthetic acceptance and support of photography presaged the acceptance of the medium as a fine art.

Early life[edit]

Samuel Wagstaff was born on November 4, 1921, in New York City. Wagstaff, a grandson of New York State Senator Alfred Wagstaff Jr.,[1] was the son of Samuel J. Wagstaff Sr., a wealthy lawyer from an old Social Register family, and his second wife, Olga May, born May Emilia Piorkowska (or Piorkowski) in New York in 1894,[2][3] a fashion illustrator who had worked for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue and was previously married to Arthur Paul Thomas.[4][5][6][7] He had one sibling, a sister, Judith (Mrs. Thomas Lewis Jefferson).[1] His parents divorced in 1932, and Wagstaff's mother, a daughter of German[1][8][9][5] inventor and scientist Col. Arthur Emil Piorkowski, married Donald V. Newhall, an artist.[1]

After growing up on Central Park South, attending the Hotchkiss School and graduating from Yale University, and being a fixture on the debutante circuit, Wagstaff joined the US Navy in 1941 as an ensign, where he took part in the D-day landing at Omaha Beach in World War II. He later worked in the field of advertising in the 1950s, which he hated. He returned to school to study Renaissance art at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, however, and turned his energies to the art world.[10][11][12]


In 1959, a David E. Finley art history fellowship took him to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. He served as curator of contemporary art at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut from 1961 to 1968. In January, 1964, he organized the show "Black, White, and Gray," choosing exhibits presenting what he described as "the sparse aesthetic shared by a number of artists whose work was pared down to a minimum". It is now often referred to as the first survey of Minimalist Art.[13] In 1968, when he was not chosen for the position of museum director, Wagstaff left Hartford[14] for the Detroit Institute of Arts staying to 1971.[15] In addition to his curatorial work, Wagstaff was a noted collector, just like his father, who collected ephemera.[16] After a conflict with the Detroit Institute of Arts' board of trustees over an earthwork by Michael Heizer, which had destroyed the immaculate museum lawn, he moved back to New York.[11]

After meeting Robert Mapplethorpe in 1972 and seeing the exhibition "The Painterly Photograph, 1890-1914" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1973, Wagstaff became convinced that photographs were the most unrecognized and, possibly, the most valuable works of art. He began selling his collection of paintings, using the proceeds to buy 19th-century American, British, and French photography. Then, influenced by Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff's taste veered toward the daring, and he began to depart from established names in search of new talent. His collection was soon recognized as one of the finest private holdings in the United States. In 1984 Wagstaff's photography collection went to the J. Paul Getty Museum, for a reported price in the neighborhood of $5 million.[4][12]

Saying he needed the challenge of building another collection, Wagstaff turned to 19th-century American silver. A show of more than 100 examples from his silver collection opened on March 20, 1987 at the New-York Historical Society.[4]

Between 1976 and 1986, Wagstaff donated his personal papers to the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. In 2008, the bulk of these papers were digitized and made available online (see the Samuel J. Wagstaff Papers, 1932–1985).

Personal life[edit]

Mapplethorpe's Studio in Manhattan

Wagstaff met photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in 1972 at a party, beginning a fifteen-year relationship that would last until Wagstaff's death, described as "first a kind of marriage, sexual and artistic, then a friendship".[17] Mapplethorpe, whom Wagstaff called his shy pornographer, was also his guide to the gay demimonde of extreme sex and drugs that flourished in New York in the 1970s and 1980s.[10] In the autumn of 1972, Wagstaff gave Mapplethorpe $500,000 to purchase the top-floor loft at 24 Bond Street, where the photographer lived and had his shooting space.

Wagstaff died of pneumonia arising from AIDS at his home in Manhattan on January 14, 1987, two years before Mapplethorpe.[4][18]

Posthumous legacy[edit]

A fund in Wagstaff's name for the purchase of photographs was started in 1987 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by art dealer Daniel Wolf.[4]

In 2007, James Crump directed the documentary film Black White + Gray, which premiered at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. In his New York Times review of the film, critic Stephen Holden wrote "Because Mapplethorpe's story is already familiar, the movie devotes most of its time to Wagstaff, whose personal history is a classic case of repressed or closeted homosexuality belatedly and furiously unleashed."[10]

In 2014, Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, a biography of Wagstaff, by Philip Gefter, was published by Norton/Liveright, and won the 2014 Marfield Prize for Arts Writing.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Gefter, Philip (2015). Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe: A Biography. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 9781631490156. Retrieved 18 April 2019.
  2. ^ "May Emilia Piorkowska in the New York, New York, Index to Birth Certificates, 1866-1909". 2020. Retrieved 28 July 2020.
  3. ^ "May E. Piorkowski in the New York, New York, Birth Index, 1891-1902". 2000. Retrieved 28 July 2020.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Sam Wagstaff, 65, A Curator And Photography Collector". The New York Times. January 16, 1987. Retrieved 2011-08-31.
  5. ^ a b Martineau, Paul (2016). The Thrill of the Chase: The Wagstaff Collection of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum.
  6. ^ "Arthur Paul Thomas in the 1920 United States Federal Census". 2010. Retrieved 28 July 2020.
  7. ^ "Arthur P Thomas in the New York, New York, Marriage License Indexes, 1907-2018". 2017. Retrieved 28 July 2020.
  8. ^ "Arthur E Piorkowski in the 1910 United States Federal Census". 2006. Retrieved 28 July 2020.
  9. ^ "Arthur Emile Piorkouska in the U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925". 2007. Retrieved 28 July 2020.
  10. ^ a b c "A Collector and His Polaroid Passions". The New York Times. October 19, 2007. Retrieved 2011-09-01.
  11. ^ a b Detroit Metro Times: "Wagstaff wins", May 14, 2008
  12. ^ a b Gaines, Catherine S., A Finding Aid to the Samuel J. Wagstaff Papers, circa 1932–1985, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  13. ^ quote and assessment found in: Meyer, James. "Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties" Yale University Press, 2001. p. 77
  14. ^ Gefter, Philip "Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, a biography of Sam Wagstaff" Norton/Liveright, 2014.
  15. ^ Gaines, Catherine S., A Finding Aid to the Samuel J. Wagstaff Papers, circa 1932–1985, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  16. ^ Hilton Als, Downtown Chronicles, “WAGSTAFF'S EYE,” The New Yorker, January 13, 1997, p. 36
  17. ^ ALS, Hilton Downtown Chronicles: Wagstaff's Eye The New Yorker, January 13, 1997
  18. ^ Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe, a 2007 documentary film by James Crump (Movie Review By Stephen Holden, October 19, 2007, NY Times)
  19. ^ Ernest Hardy, Doc of the Week | Black White + Gray, Crave, August 25, 2015

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]