As power couples go, the combined cultural resonance of artist Robert Mapplethorpe and collector, curator, and patron Samuel J. Wagstaff, Jr. is hard to overstate or even untangle. Wagstaff’s outsize influence on the explosive artistic success of his young, streetwise lover, primarily through his lifelong financial support, is well documented. But the personal and reciprocal nature of that influence is less visible.
Meeting in 1972, two years after the first Pride parade, Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff gave artistic expression to a newly visible queer culture in America through a traditionally underappreciated medium: photography. The power of Mapplethorpe’s subversive black-and-white images—often depicting unvarnished acts of gay sexuality and BDSM—was amplified by Wagstaff’s deep pockets and art world connections. At the same time, Wagstaff’s divergent collecting habits were invigorated by the discerning eye of his soon-to-be celebrated boyfriend, twenty-five years his junior.
By 1974, Mapplethorpe’s personal influence on the lovestruck Wagstaff was fully exposed. While the artist was traveling, Wagstaff sent him a series of seductive self-portraits. One shows Wagstaff bound with electrical cord and adorned in the leather and animal-tooth jewelry favored by the bondage-obsessed Mapplethorpe. Clearly, the older patrician had wandered some distance from his formal aristocratic roots. Mapplethorpe, who made no secret that he was gay, helped Wagstaff to explore his deeply repressed sexuality. The photo seems to signal allegiance to the young artist’s vision and openness, reflecting the Velvet Underground and Nico’s tribute to self-erasing romantic love, I’ll Be Your Mirror.
“Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe communicated visually,” write Frances Terpak and Michelle Brunnick in Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive. “They were attracted not only to one another physically but also to the way each other saw the world, operating with similar aesthetic sensibilities.”
That shared sensibility manifested early on in their mutual fascination with and exploration of photography. Throughout his career, Wagstaff was a maverick collector of the odd and underappreciated, including 19th-century silver, over 10,000 postcards, and even cat images. Beginning in 1973, he built a substantial collection of early French, British, and American photography, turning his attention to more audacious contemporary works after becoming involved with the “shy pornographer,” as he playfully addressed Mapplethorpe during their first phone conversation.
When the pair met, Mapplethorpe was focused on assemblages and collage work, using photographs primarily as appropriated material. But as Wagstaff built his collection, the emerging artist became immersed in the styles and techniques of the 19th- and early 20th-century photographers it contained. The salted-paper photos of Scottish duo David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, as well as the ethereal prints of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, held formative sway over an evolving artist still investigating this versatile medium.
As a collector, Wagstaff nearly single-handedly established an international marketplace for photography. In 1974 he captured the art world’s attention when he bid an eyebrow-raising £52,000 at Sotheby’s London for an obscure 1864 album created by Cameron. The record-setting bid caused a sensation and, along with his unflagging public promotion of the medium, raised photography’s profile as fine art. Meanwhile, Mapplethorpe helped shape Wagstaff’s collecting habits and taste. “I don’t think that I would have felt quite so sure of myself had I not had Robert’s eye behind me, helping me,” Wagstaff told a Spanish news program in 1984.
Wagstaff died of complications from AIDS in 1987, presaging Mapplethorpe’s own demise two years later from the same “hideous disease,” as the artist referred to it. Before he died, Wagstaff sold his collection to the J. Paul Getty Museum, though he held onto treasured works by Mapplethorpe. Acting as mirrors to one another, bringing into view the transgressive and disregarded, the two men changed the way we see—and their intense romance and continued close friendship was in many ways the catalyst.