Sam Wagstaff

In those days, Robert Mapplethorpe and I walked a lot, that I well remember. Those strolls we took together through Greenwich Village and along the riverfront down by the piers, on hot summer nights. Sometimes we’d end up in the East Village at a small little cafe. Or we would share a cab up to Times Square and walk around 42nd street where Robert would tell me tales of his youth. About trying to be a hustler on 42nd street, he said he hadn’t been very good at it. Although, he couldn’t have been that bad at it because, during this time, he had managed to meet art collector Sam Wagstaff after all, hadn’t he? I thought secretly to myself. As he talked, we would meander our way back towards downtown, into the nighttime.

I remember my first Easter Sunday in 1982 with Robert Mapplethorpe. After having spoken with Robert from a payphone in the West Village, he invited me over to 77 Bleecker Street. The day had a chill in the air, it was a spring chill, it was a romantically chilly day, as I recall. It gives me warm thoughts even now, thinking of that day, after all this time. I walked towards the East Village on Bleecker Street on my way to Robert’s small, fancy for the times, apartment. The apartment, in fact, where eventually I would soon move into.

Everything was new and fresh then, it seemed to me at the time. I was new to New York City. I was under it’s spell. New York City was exciting for me, it was my perfect world, in those days. Then, I listened carefully to what my heart was saying. I opened up my heart to let life in. Now, those days are just poignant memories.

As I entered the minimally designed lobby of the building, I noticed that a huge Easter basket was sitting at the front desk. The front desk where the doorman stolidly manned his post at 77 Bleecker Street. The large Easter basket was ornate in it’s bedazzling splendor. This I observed even through the cellophane, wrapped around the basket, shielding it in a bow from the elements, like a pink veil.

The art collector Sam Wagstaff had sent the large Easter basket over to 77 Bleecker Street, Robert told me, after I’d brought it upstairs and presented it to him. This was to be the first time I was to hear the name Sam Wagstaff. Over the next few years, he would become a sort of mentor. Albeit, in an effectively casual way. Although, I did not know this then. ’Who’s Sam Wagstaff?’ I asked Robert. He told me that at one time, they had been lovers, but now, they were best friends. No sex, he said. He also told me Sam Wagstaff was a millionaire. Robert said all this in one particular breath, I noticed. Just to get all that out of the way, it seemed to me. As I stood there marveling at the decadently elaborate Easter basket, wrapped in pink.

Sam Wagstaff was eccentric in his extreme ordinariness. He and Robert spoke with an infantile affection for one another, using a vocabulary bordering on baby talk when no one else was listening. They would have mushy nicknames for this that and the other, language I would become all to familiar with in the coming years. In fact, the Easter basket had come accompanied with a note card that Robert proceeded to read to me from the bed from which he was lying upon. Which referred to Robert as ‘Lumps’ and gushed many other endearing terms in their secret speak. I thought I saw Robert blush as he read all this to me from the note card.

Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe had been born 25 years apart on the same day, November 4, in 1921 and 1946 respectively. Their relationship still continues to resonate with me today. The paths and doorways shown to me. Then openly laid out in my mind during the time I spent between them, are lessons that are indelibly etched upon my psyche. By the time I knew them, they held a peculiar sway over the art world. No longer a romantic pair, though still a partnership. Together, they were a force to be paid close mind to.

From Wagstaff I learned about artists Ray Johnson and Michael Heizer, and the early pioneers of photography, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Through Mapplethorpe, I learned not only about photography, but also about drawing and painting. I witnessed how the art world, in all it’s subtle, and even at times, sordid, intricacies operated. During this time though, I mostly learned about how to appreciate beauty.

Samuel Jones Wagstaff, Jr. was born in New York City with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was not ostentatious about his wealth, he was frugal. Although, he was very generous to Robert upon first meeting him in the early 1970s. Buying for him a studio loft at 24 Bond Street. The place where the majority of the iconic Mapplethorpe photographs known so well today, would be shot. The studio where I was first photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe. Meanwhile, Sam Wagstaff lived nearby at One Fifth Avenue. One day while walking along 8th Street with a friend, I saw Sam carrying a shopping bag full of soda pop bottles that he was returning to the store for the deposit. This was a man who owned and lived in a luxurious penthouse apartment at One Fifth Avenue over looking Washington Square Park. When I would go over for a visit, he would be dressed in a white oxford shirt, normally. Perhaps slightly frayed at the collar, worn with age. With a pair of blue jeans, also faded by years of wear. He would, more likely than not, be wearing a pair of socks featuring a hole at one of the heels. The penthouse, painted all white, was spacious but sparsely furnished, with just a few settees and chairs. In his bedroom there was a mattress on the floor for when he went to bed. Valuable art would be leaning against the walls. Mapplethorpe photographs strewn here and there on the floor, a Warhol leaning against a wall. The walls themselves were bare, Sam did not hang art on his walls. His environment was bohemian chic, well appointed potted trees adorned the penthouse. Sam Wagstaff made his extraordinary lifestyle seem ordinary. He treated his art collection with a sort of irreverence, as if it was no big deal. He wasn’t precious about any of all this. Samuel Jones Wagstaff, Jr., was the epitome of art world class, without exaggeration.

Sam and Robert were already beginning to be seen as revolutionaries in the art world. They had began to feverishly collect photography at a break neck pace, when the practice was virtually unheard of. They collected the works of Nadar, Julia Margaret Cameron, Matthew Brady, James Van Der Zee, and Wilhelm von Gloeden. Also, they collected the contemporary works of Peter Hujar, Joel-Peter Witkin, and George Dureau, and others too. Their obsession with collecting photography would prove to be very lucrative for both of them, in the end. Elevating the photograph into the realm of fine art. Changing the art worlds perception of photography to what it has become today. Now, Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe are seen as visionaries in the field of photography.