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Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1932-1985

Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1932-1985

Wagstaff, Samuel J., 1921-1987

Curator, Collector, Dealer

Representative image for Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1932-1985

The papers of Samuel J. Wagstaff in the Archives of American Art were digitized in 2008. The bulk of the papers have been scanned and total 7,614 images.

Funding for the digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Collection Information

Size: 6.2 linear feet

Summary: The Samuel J. Wagstaff papers, circa 1932-1985, comprise 6.2 linear feet of correspondence, writings, miscellaneous records, printed material, and photographs documenting Wagstaff's professional and personal relationships with artists and photographers, his career as an art curator, and his position as an important collector of paintings and photographs.

Correspondence with artists and others such as curators, arts organizations, galleries, and museums reflects the diversity of contemporary American art and includes individuals associated with the abstract expressionist, Fluxus, pop, earth, conceptual, and minimalist art movements. Wagstaff's importance as a collector and curator and his generosity to and interest in artists is evident from the large number of invitations to view and critique work, requests for fellowship and grant recommendations, and thank you notes from artists to whom he extended financial or moral support. Among the most prolific correspondents found here are: Dan Basen, George Brecht, James Lee Byars, Walter de Maria, Mark Di Suvero, Albert Fine, Dan Flavin, Ann Halprin, Grace Hartigan, Charles James, Philip Johnson, Ray Johnson, Doreen and Robert Manning, Agnes Martin, Gordon Newton, Claes Oldenburg, Ad Reinhardt, Dieter Rot, Alan Saret, Richard Tuttle, May Wilson, and Andy Warhol.

Writings by Wagstaff consist of "Looking at Modern Art" prepared for the Trinity College Reading Program, and an untitled, undated piece about multiplicity in art. Among the writings by other authors are Bruce Bennard's "The Photographer Rediscovered," "Pop Art" by Henry Geldzahler, and "Collecting Photographs" by Bonnie Barrett Stretch.

Miscellaneous records are drawings by Bruce Kleinsmith, a print by Harold Paris and artists' resumes. Also included is a costume consisting of a stuffed devil's tail and two red silk caps connected by a long sash, all in a matching red silk bag.

Among the printed material are books, exhibition catalogs and prospectuses, periodicals, press releases, reproductions, and a variety of other printed items relating to photography and art.

Photographs consist largely of copy prints and a small number of original prints. Also included are a few images of exhibition installations and other miscellaneous subjects. There are no portraits of Samuel J. Wagstaff among the photographs of people. Identified individuals include: Bella Abzug, Peter Allen, Michael Collins, Angela Davis, Candy Darling, Wendell Ford, Joseph Hirshhorn, W. A. Huffman, David Love, Marc Miller, Bettie Ringma, and Andy Warhol.

Biographical/Historical Note

Samuel Wagstaff (1921-1987) was an art dealer and curator from New York, N.Y. Formerly a curator of 20th century art at the Wadsworth Atheneum (1961-1968) and at the Detroit Institute of Arts (1968-1971), in 1973 Wagstaff began collecting photographs. He subsequently moved to New York and amassed one of the largest privately held collections, focusing primarily on American, British and French works from the 19th century.


Donated 1975-1986 by Samuel Wagstaff. Collection processed and correspondence microfilmed 1993 with funds provided by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.


Funding for the digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

A Finding Aid to the Samuel J. Wagstaff Papers,
circa 1932-1985
, in the Archives of American Art
Biographical Note
Samuel J. Wagstaff, Jr. (1921-1987), the son of a lawyer from an old New York family and fashion artist Olga Piorkowska, was born in New York City. A graduate of Yale University, he was an ensign in the Navy and took part in the D-day landing at Omaha Beach.
Following World War II, Wagstaff studied Renaissance art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. A David E. Finley art history fellowship took him to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C. in 1959. He served as curator of contemporary art at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Conn., from 1961 to 1968, where he coordinated sculptor Tony Smith's first museum show in 1966. In 1971, during Wagstaff's tenure as curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts (1968-1971), he presented Michael Heizer's installation
Dragged Mass Geometric
on the grounds of the museum.
In addition to his curatorial work, Samuel J. Wagstaff was a noted collector. Originally, he was a fairly influential collector of avant-garde paintings. After seeing the exhibition "The Painterly Photograph" and meeting photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff became convinced that photographs were the most unrecognized and, possibly, the most valuable works of art. He moved to New York and began selling his collection of paintings, using the proceeds to begin his photography collection and concentrating on 19th century American, British, and French examples. Then, influenced by his lover, photographer Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff's taste veered toward the daring, and he began to depart from established names in search of new talent. His collection was soon recognized as one of the finest private holdings in the United States. An exhibition of his photographs was organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., in 1978, and
A Book of Photographs from the Sam Wagstaff Collection
was published to accompany the show that toured the country.
The photograph collection was sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, Calif., in 1984, for a reported $5 million. Wagstaff then focused his attention on collecting 19th century American silver, and a selection from that collection was exhibited at the New York Historical Society in 1987.
Samuel J. Wagstaff died in New York City on January 14, 1987, from pneumonia, a complication of HIV infection.
The collection is arranged into 5 series.
Series 1: Correspondence, 1932-1986 (Boxes 1-3, 8, OV 9-10; 2.5 linear ft.)
Series 2: Writings, 1961-1983 (Box 3; 0.2 linear ft.)
Series 3: Miscellaneous Papers and Artifacts, 1970s-1980s (Box 3; 0.2 linear ft.)
Series 4: Printed Material, circa 1914-1988 (Boxes 3-8, OV 11; 3.2 linear ft.)
Series 5: Photographs, 1975-1982 (Boxes 7-8; 0.1 linear ft.)
Donated 1975-1986 by Samuel Wagstaff. Collection processed and correspondence microfilmed 1993 with funds provided by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
Processing Information
Initial processing of the Samuel J. Wagstaff papers by Archives of American Art staff, microfilming of the correspondence on reels 4794-4797, and a preliminary finding aid prepared by intern Sarah Vowell, was accomplished with funds provided by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in 1993. Final processing and a finding aid were completed by Catherine S. Gaines in 2006, and the collection was digitized in 2008 with funding provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Additional Forms Available

The bulk of the collection was digitized in 2008 and is available via the Archives of American Art's website. Materials not digitized include books, reproductions, and sales catalogs.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center. Contact Reference Services for more information.

How to Cite This Collection

Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1932-1985. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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