By: Sheri Linden
Herb and Dorothy
Arthouse Films; Releases June 5, New York and Los Angeles
A New York Times headline dubbed them the “In Couple,” and they are among theGreat Collectors of Our Time, according to the recently published survey of postwar collecting by James Stourton, chairman of Sotheby’s U.K. But Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, who in 1992 became major benefactors of the National Gallery of Art, are neither hotshot jet-setters nor old-money socialites. They’re retired government employees. While her pay as a librarian covered their living expenses, on his postal worker’s salary they amassed one of the world’s most important collections of Minimalist and Conceptual art.
The Vogels took chances—on Donald Judd’s industrial fabrications and Sol LeWitt’s modular structures. (The first LeWitt piece they purchased, in 1965, had to be exchanged because, at 8 feet tall, it didn’t clear their ceiling.) Before there was a market for such work, they became avid connoisseurs of Robert Mangold’s Minimalism, Lynda Benglis’ sculptural experiments and Lawrence Weiner’s typographic installations. Some artists considered them curators, some saw them as mascots of a nascent scene and a few dealers grumbled over their tendency to cut out the middleman. Yet however they were perceived, the Vogels knew what they liked and pursued it with single-minded fervor.
First-time filmmaker Megumi Sasaki spent four years following the unassuming duo through the galleries of Manhattan and into the studios of artists who have become their friends. But a good portion of Herb and Dorothy, Sasaki’s affectionate and sprightly documentary, takes place at the Vogels’ kitchen table—one of the few pieces of furniture in the one-bedroom apartment they share with turtles, tropical fish and a contented cat named Archie. Taking up most of that rent-controlled space, until 1992, were the 2,000-plus paintings and sculptures they had acquired over 30 years. The contents of their tiny apartment filled five giant moving vans—a sort of clown-car trick that defied the laws of physics and geometry.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the Vogels’ story is that they have never sold any of their pieces, even as many of the artists they collected became famous. They accepted no payment from the National Gallery for their collection; many museums had courted them, but the Washington, D.C., institution appealed to them because it’s free to the public and doesn’t sell its holdings. Herb begrudges no one for playing the art market, but his passion took a different, arguably purer, form.
Herb is given to such quiet pronouncements as “It’s just beautiful, that’s all” and, regarding a solid green canvas by Richard Tuttle, “It just moves. And talks.” The intellectualization of art has become so embedded in the culture of criticism and appreciation that there’s something breathtakingly refreshing, if at first frustrating, in the Vogels’ refusal to ascribe meaning to artworks. It’s not that their view of art is simplistic. Chuck Close, one of the artists interviewed for the film—all of whom speak of the Vogels with warm admiration—notes that they are drawn to challenging, non-decorative work.
Tuttle lauds them for “eyes that see”; Will Barnet says they were born with an “aesthetic eye”; and Lucio Pozzi observes Herb’s focused, hound-like gaze. The Vogels’ discernment was the perfect match for the work that was surfacing when they started buying art in the 1960s: pieces that emphasized materials and the aesthetic impulse. Such conceptualism was also, Dorothy observes, the only thing they could afford. Pop art and Abstract Expressionism had already become fashionably pricey.
If this film showcases an obsession with art, it is also a respectful portrait of mutual devotion. As they make their present-day studio rounds or walk delightedly through Christo and Jean-Claude’s Gates in Central Park, Herb clutches a cane in one hand and Dorothy’s hand in the other. Shrunken and slightly bent, the light in his eyes undimmed, he has a gnomish air. There’s no indication of whether the Vogels shared their collection with friends—one suspects a more introverted existence. But now they’ve given it to the world. Herb and Dorothy, in its way as unprepossessing as its subjects, poses timeless questions about the nature of art.