Arts Alliance America // 2007 // 77 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // April 24th, 2008
An unsung hero of the art world gets his song from Patti Smith.
Black White + Gray is a documentary portrait of artistic curator and patron Samuel Wagstaff (1921-1987). Wagstaff was born into wealth, had a successful career as an advertising man on Madison Avenue in the '50s, and finally settled down with a young upstart artist who introduced him to a world of sex and drugs. You'll find the film concentrating on his relationship as the inspiration and funding source for controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1987). The artist and his "sugar daddy" were linked in business and sex, and the pair reinvented the art world to include photography as a serious medium. They were radical figures of the '80s, and died all too young after contracting the AIDs virus. They were both close to punk poet and rock legend Patti Smith, who went to art college with Robert, and the film's most interesting segments come from her recollections of hanging out with Sam and Robert. Wagstaff's life makes for a fascinating documentary, and Black White + Gray pays him compliments for recognizing the art in photography. He comes off as an unsung hero who not only unleashed the forceful talent of Mapplethorpe, but also made the snobby art world embrace photography into their elite circle.
Despite the fact the subjects were highly sexualized people, Black White + Gray feels mostly like a lecture given by the various talking heads as we view a wealthy man's collection. Mapplethorpe was educated by Wagstaff through his knowledge of the history of photography, and the two shared a love of erotic images of men. We see some of these works, but they are studied and artful rather than pornographic or exploitative. The visuals include some rough stuff, but they are treated with the utmost respect and put into context. The main objective of Black White + Gray is to show how much Sam Wagstaff needs to be remembered as fondly as his paramour.
Arts Alliance America has provided Black White + Gray a straightforward release with a clear full-screen transfer and only one extra. "Sam Wagstaff at the Corcoran Museum" is an archival presentation by Sam in black and white explaining why he likes to collect photography. It runs about 20 minutes, and it offers a nice sense of what Wagstaff's public persona was like. He's masculine, smart, and passionate. Sound is a simple stereo, and there's not much else to ramble on about. The film is the important thing here, and there is nothing more offered than a look at it.
If you like photography or Robert Mapplethorpe's dangerous images, Black White + Gray is a nice look back at the man who discovered the value of both. One can't help but think it makes academic what must have been an equally sexy and harrowing ride. We get to hear from the sole survivor, Patti Smith. She is the soul of the piece, and in her words we get the most out of it. Black White + Gray can be a bit dry in its approach, but the subject material is fascinating enough to make this a moving portrait of two men we don't know nearly enough about. One became an art legend, and the other allowed himself to fade away in to the portraits. At least James Crump's film can be Sam's legacy, and that's the great thing about passion and memories.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Arts Alliance America
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 77 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Archival Interview Footage
* Official Site