Sam Wagstaff, Photography Giant — and Public Art?

Beyond the Detroit Institute of Arts Debacle

Few remember Sam Wagstaff was more than the elegant titan who made photography into art and made Robert Mapplethorpe, too. The curator, collector, and insider didn’t agree that the public was just another word for the art-ignorant, and therefore ignorable. The patrician had a populist sensitivity. When SoHo snarled from its grimy cobbles elitist how dare theys at the “public” who protested Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc in 1985, Sam Wagstaff didn’t damn the public. With them, he railed against that 120 foot long, 12 foot high arc of rusting core-ten steel that leaned menacingly to bisect the once-traversable plaza.

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc

Sam had left his curatorial position at the Detroit Institute of Arts when his ill-fated installation of Michael Heizer’s “Dragged Mass Displacement” gouged their lawn. It wasn’t the public who complained, it was the DIA Board. The fiasco impelled Sam to move back to New York, and that’s when I met him in 1972. He underlined that move to me with the jibe so repeated since, “It was a triumph of lawn over art, wasn’t it.” It was not a question when he intoned it — a trait of his when he knew he was right and he didn’t care if anyone else agreed.

By 1985 in New York public art was loud in that time of ephemeral plenty — and AIDS was still revving up from a whisper. It seemed easy to get upset about art, to get art cognoscenti to turn up at public hearings for Tilted Arc. Protest an artwork? The unanointed “public” dared to speak out, as Sam did — but not in public.

“The piece is terrible and the place is terrible and people know it. They don’t have to know art. They know what makes them feel like shit, and that’s what it does!”

Sam roared so his usually modulated, deep bass exploded like a cannon from his top floor overlooking Washington Square Park. Given his wrath, I urged him to go instead of me to the hearing for Tilted Arc’s possible removal. But no. “You can goddamn tell them yourself! You’re the one studying it.”

I was indeed studying it with Sam’s input and Maxine Wolfe’s guidance at The City University of New York’s Graduate Center. For my doctoral thesis I observed behaviors around and analyzed attitudes toward Serra’s and other public artworks. I included Rosemarie Castoro’s Flashers, 7 foot tall figurative black forms of galvanized steel, because reactions to them expressed the starkest contrast to Tilted Arc.

Rosemarie Castoro, Flashers (Third Avenue)

So, I went to the Serra hearing without Sam and read the statement we had put together. Our point was that it’s not a bad thing for emotions to overflow onto a work of art. Isn’t that the function of good art? But, more important for public art, each work deserved appraisal within its own unique setting.

Evaluation is always about more than a solitary artwork. As a budding environmental psychologist studying public art, I was steeped in its maverick ways: we criticized those who studied behavior only in sterile lab settings. Real, contextual variables should be considered as well as the piece: architecture, intended versus actual use, by whom, their occupation, gender, the meanings and symbolism of the space, for whom and why…

“My research shows that artworks in the urban setting cannot be evaluated inde­pendently from their total context. I have come today neither to praise the piece nor to bury it.”

Sam thought starting out with the praise-bury hook wasn’t to be cute — well, not just that. We decided it would emphasize the retreat from a simplistic binary. We wanted to avoid the “good-bad” art evaluations and the “blame” created by eliciting those “love-hate” pronouncements for Tilted Arc — or any public artwork.

We cannot simply evaluate a piece on an aesthetic principle alone without also asking how the piece works in a particular environment. …How does the addition of the piece — entering a pre-existing spatial and social history — change behavior or uses? How does it make people feel? Where does it “take” them?…the “public” in public art. 1

Serra’s piece took people to a dark place, but Rosemarie Castoro’s Flashers, matte black steel columns that looked “pulled open,” took them into themselves. Reactions went beyond the general “yes-no” retorts to art because I did not set up the binary: “Do you like this work of art?” Instead I asked open-ended queries about ideas and feelings like, “What does the piece make you think of?”

Flashers (Third Avenue-48th Street):

What do you think of that work of art?

“They’re mysterious, like Druids. They look like Druids. It’s like there’s somethinghiding in there. They make you think about people.” [Waiter, man]

Can you describe the art, what does it look like?

“It’s wrapping over something. I thought it was canvas or paper. It’s really interesting; unrestricted, free-floating art.” [Copy editor, woman]

What did the artist intend to communicate?

“A feeling of breaking out of the conservativebusiness world around here. They’re bunched and crushed and wasteful. Wonderful.” [Advertising Manager, man]1

Tilted Arc (Foley Square):

What does the art mean to you?

“Nothing; except somebodypulled a fast one.” [Lawyer, man]

Why do you like (or not like) the art?

“It doesn’t say anything.” [Secretary, woman]

How often do you come to this place?

“I used to come out here all the time for lunch until they put that thing up.” [Disbursement officer, man] 1

But how was I supposed to report any negative findings about Tilted Arc to a hall filled with the downtown art world? I knew all those artists and gallery people from openings and parties. Now I would be their traitor. I didn’t have Sam’s breeding, bearing, or name to save me. Respected artists like Claes Oldenberg, Frank Stella, and Serra himself were there to defend the integrity of Tilted Arc.

Serra said it directly: “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people.”

I wanted to escape, and running on my way out yell, “Hey Sam Wagstaff doesn’t agree with you, but with me! — my research! Nyah-nyah.”

…The study has uncovered some important factors: People do indeed appreciate public works of art and want to see them remain, …conditions of the settings make a difference in their evaluations and transactions with works — especially being able to spend time with works enriching their meaning beyond a focus on physical factors, …and — most important — art has meaning in people’s lives depending on the work, the setting, and the people…and where a piece may fall on the evocative-provocative experiential continuum can help us understand its impact…1

Rejecting the binary way of seeing public art as the art world usually did, didn’t ostracize Sam. And I would have continued to promote the complex evaluation dynamic that my research revealed, but something happened…

AIDS. After the hearing in 1985 the AIDS whisper became a scream. Public art that defied public sensitivity and replaced it with personal hubris was reflected in the time. President Reagan ignored the AIDS crisis; Mayor Koch was even worse. Our world changed. My research was muted by what happened in our lives, more than any art that could uplift, or make us angry.

Robert Mapplethorpe was diagnosed. Sam was diagnosed. Our world changed.

For a while we pretended normalcy, talked art, argued… Sam could still roar with rage. Public art had its special traits, intended for public space. But our own environment became different, private.

We ruminated over whether art intended for public space is distinctive from art created for a patron like the Medici? Or for the artist? Is the piece hermetic to itself, and not discursive no matter the context?

So, later, in the very different setting of my Bowery loft that had a precious roof extension outside the rear windows, Sam and I could question how “public” pieces change with no “public” to interact with them. What was the public, for example, for Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, isolated way out west, “out there,” he said.

And so for a while we could, with Robert too, we watched Castoro’s light cement renditions of her Flashers, shorter than the black steel group on Third Avenue. We could watch them. Rosemarie needed to store them so they were on my roof, my “out there.” Was her public art different like that, outside, but for our eyes alone?

“Well they’re public for us, aren’t they,” Sam said. “Lucky us.”

Lucky us… for a while.

Rosemarie Castoro, Flashers (my Bowery loft roof extension)

1 “The Experience of Public Art in Urban Settings.” Roberta Degnore, 1987. CUNY Academic Works. The Graduate Center.

writer, traveler, renaissance activist-- what? books: The Assistance of Vice, Until You See Me, Invisible Soft Return:\ on amazon

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