Friday, January 20, 2006

Reflections in a Golden Eye...

"“Photography is silent talk," late photography collector and curator Sam Wagstaff was wont to say. As Artforum said in 1997, "Wagstaff's curatorial genius and mania was juxtaposition. He paired discontinuous photographs to create a strange beauty, adding to the odd resonance of the photographs themselves, as in his wild and funny placement of Count de Montizon's recumbent The Hippopotamus at the Zoological Gardens, Regents Park, 1855, next to Lewis Carroll's sly odalisque, Portrait of a Young Boy, ca. 1857."

Were it not for Wagstaff's obsessive eyes, his penchant for the obscure and subversive, and his not-so-silent talk about the medium, photography might still be as under-appreciated and uncollectable as it was up until the late 1970s. Back in New York's swinging Studio 54 era, Wagstaff (incidentally, Robert Mapplethorpe's lover and mentor), trumped even Andy Warhol as champion of the inherent sexiness of looking at photographs, and by association, everything else the eye could see. "Some images," he noted, "allow you to linger, allow you to return again and again to a special mind-place that is sexy in the best sense of the word - emotional, intellectual, and sensual." This was the kind of simple and scandalous talk that made Wagstaff a reigning prince and provocateur in the art world. He was quick to throw vitriolic tirades at elitist curators pickled in their ancient ivory towers. His lively (and overtly gay) personal code of titillation and visual whimsy spread like confetti through the newly emerging moneyed and powerful ranks of "uber-art-fags". Soon enough, with Wagstaff's urging, Mapplethorpe's lens would uncap black penises for every mom and village priest to wrestle with in private.

The Wagstaff way of seeing quickly became the sacred bedrock upon which a whole new flock of aggressive collectors and curators fashioned their empires. And to close, a stretch: Could it be that the ascendancy and mass popularization of Wagstaff's talent for homoerotic juxtaposition is one reason why kissing cowboys rule the box office today? Well you'll just have to ask the next guy in a cowboy hat you see.


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