Published annually, the DIA’s Bulletin was released last week (copies are available in the museum shop) with articles devoted entirely to the topic of portraiture. The focus of the 2009 issue came as a suggestion from George Keyes, our recently retired chief curator and former curator of European paintings at the DIA, who also brought a successful survey of Van Gogh’s portraiture to the DIA several years back.
Looking to “probe the elusive nature of portraiture, highlight its ability to engage and intrigue, and heighten general interest in this genre” – the nine contributing authors have presented their research on variety of DIA works from as early as the 15th century as well as the “virtuoso carving” found in British portrait sculptures, Delacroix’s Portrait of Doctor Francois-Marie Desmaisons, and the self-portraits of Lovis Corinth.
Throwing my own hat into the ring, so-to-speak, I included a short article about Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of Sam Wagstaff from 1979. By the late 1970s, Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe had carved a unique and perhaps unprecedented place for themselves in the world of art and photography. Mapplethorpe was gaining recognition for his portraits of artists, collectors, writers and musicians. Wagstaff had become a serious collector of photographs. Prior to this, Wagstaff had a somewhat brief but memorable connection to the Detroit art community and the DIA where he served as a curator of modern and contemporary art from 1969 to 1971. He had little to do with photography at the time, but his interest in the medium was sparked after seeing the work of Enrico Natali in 1969. While on staff at the DIA, he also received an letter of introduction from a relatively unknown New York-artist named Robert Mapplethorpe.
The recent documentary film Black, White + Gray A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe investigated the lives of the two men, but the details of Wagstaff’s early foray into photograph collecting are not well known. While moving files and office records during our recent renovation, I discovered Wagstaff’s correspondence with our retired curator of prints, drawings, and photographs Ellen Sharp. Further research filled in some of the blanks, particularly from his papers from our library archives (unearthed with the kind assistance of DIA librarian Maria Ketcham) as well as from the Smithsonian, where the Wagstaff papers are currently held (and now digitized online) in the collections of the Archives of American Art. These sources were invaluable in uncovering the late collector’s visionary passion for photography when the rest of the art world was not all that interested in the medium.
I was fortunate to find an old photograph from the Willis Gallery, ca. 1974, where Brad Iverson snapped a quick picture of Wagstaff talking to arts reporter Joy Colby – Mapplethorpe is seated in the background. Wagstaff had his own Polaroid work up in the exhibition called Art Images along with photographs by Mapplethorpe, Judy Linn, Iverson and about seven other artists.
Many thanks go out as well to Susanne Hilberry, Brad Iverson, and Anne Marie MacDonald for sharing their reminiscences about this fascinating man and a very interesting era in the history of Detroit and it very special local arts scene of the 1970s.