James Crump's documentary Black White + Gray: A Portrait Of Sam Wagstaff And Robert Mapplethorpe is best viewed as a companion piece to recent art-history docs like Peter Rosen's Who Gets To Call It Art? and Ric Burns' Andy Warhol. On its own, Black White + Gray is fine, but a little dry. Crump tells the story of influential curator/collector Wagstaff via overwrought narration and tense music, looking to add an unnecessary sense of drama. Even the title's inclusion of Mapplethorpe—Wagstaff's close friend and rumored lover—seems overly calculated. A lot of Black White + Gray's interviewees contend that Mapplethorpe rode Wagstaff's impeccable reputation to fame as a photographer, and that Mapplethorpe might've been responsible for giving Wagstaff AIDS. But the movie really isn't about Mapplethorpe, and using his name feels exploitative.
Anyway, Wagstaff is an interesting enough figure on his own, even in a documentary with the tinny aesthetic of an art-museum gift-shop souvenir. Born upper-class, Wagstaff served in the Navy in World War II and became an advertising executive in the '50s, at a time when nearly every creative person of wealth flocked to Madison Avenue. But Wagstaff left advertising behind at the end of the decade and became one of the best-known backers of the modern-art movement, curating shows like his landmark "Black White + Gray" exhibition, which heralded the dawn of minimalism in fashion and design. Later, he met Mapplethorpe and his roommate Patti Smith—whom Crump interviews at length—and began to explore the darker side of his sexuality. Some of that self-destructiveness fed his professional tastes, which began to be directed toward works of great darkness and violence.
This is where Black White + Gray works best: as an examination of how a patron of the arts can become a kind of artist himself, just by his discernment. Wagstaff spent portions of his life collecting American silver and old anonymous photographs, and the selections he made fascinated other artists and historians. As a biography of one of the key figures of 20th-century American art, Black White + Gray is just a piece of the larger puzzle. But it's valuable whenever Crump pushes beyond merely asserting that collectors can be geniuses, and instead explores the three subjects that drove this particular collector: sex, death, and impeccable design.