On the prowl through the Manhattan art scene and in the 2008 documentary made by Megumi Sasaki, the diminutive Herb (1922-2012) and Dorothy Vogel (born 1935) charm. They married in 1962, were totally devoted to each other, and obsessed with accumulating contemporary art. They painted in abstract expressionist style, but gradually supplanted their own works on the walls of their rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side with what they regarded as better work by others.
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The first piece they bought together was a small and very colorful piece by sculptor John Chamberlain made of and called “Crushed Car Parts.” What they bought had to be small enough to take home by subway or taxi and fit into an increasingly crammed warehouse-like apartment shared with cats, a very large fish tank, and turtle tanks. And be affordable to the “proletarian art collectors.”
The Vogels lived on what Dorothy made as a Brooklyn Public Library librarian (she had a master’s degree from the University of Denver; it is hard to imagine her out of New York State and the documentary provides no information on how or why she studied in Colorado), spending what Herb (a high-school dropout who worked the midnight shift as a mail sorter) made. They were able to stretch their art collecting budget by buying works directly from artists who were not at all established. Grateful for early support paid in cash, those who became established sold the Vogels work for a fraction of what now had market value. (Christo traded them a piece for cat-sitting.)
I’ve forgotten which artist notes that some other artists thought the Vogels were exploiting artists. Many artists interviewed on camera come across as grateful for the friendship and appreciation they received. I don’t recall hearing anything from the owners or managers of the art galleries from whom the Vogels bought nothing, while relentlessly attending openings. I guess the attention of the Vogels to shows was a sort of positive publicity for the galleries. There is footage of the Vogels at a number of openings, so permission to shoot was granted, presumably given with calculation about good publicity, along with, I suppose, being charmed by the Vogels.
Though Herb audited art history classes at NYU by day (after sleeping a maximum of four hours), neither he nor his wife could articulate what they saw—either why they collected the artists they collected (and they generally bought many works by each artist) or what they chose from the work by a particular artist (after looking at pretty much everything that the artist had to sell). Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Herb knew what he liked, and Dorothy liked what Herb liked, but their inability to go beyond “I think it’s beautiful” makes for a dull documentary, and insofar as I think much of what they collected unbeautiful, it’s frustrating not to have any insight into what makes many of these works “art” and collectible. And none of the artists attempts to explain what they think the Vogels liked about what they bought (I’m not sure the conceptual artists even agreed that what the Vogels bought of their work qualified as “beautiful”; the minimalists were probably in agreement: they must be discerning if they like what I make.)
Herb said that he did not need to be able to see a particular acquisition, that he remembered what it looked like and enjoyed knowing that it was there (in his apartment). Most of their collection was inaccessible. With so much, I don’t understand why some that was light-sensitive was hung and covered, with so much in piles of boxes. When does collecting turn into obsessive hoarding?
As I was contemplating that question, the Vogels gave their collection to the National Gallery in D.C. They could have made a lot of money (after which, more artists who had sold cheap to them would have reason to feel exploited), but gave it to a museum that is open without charge to the public and does not deaccession what it accessions (and a museum in which they spent their honeymoon with Herb tutoring Dorothy).
The works being transferred for cataloging numbered 4782 and took five full-size moving vans to transport to Washington! Having regained their apartment, the Vogels spent the small annuity from the National Gallery (size unspecified; indeed, there are no specifications of prices or assessed valuations in the whole movie) acquiring more art. Quel surprise! Another 2500 pieces rather than putting in a sofa. (Under the final credits, Dorothy is buying her firs computer, a Mac.)
The National Gallery has had at least two shows entirely drawn from the Vogel collection, but decided it could only accession a thousand pieces. Having taken what its curators considered the cream of the collection, the National Gallery and the Vogels (and the National Endowment for the Arts) concocted a project of providing Fifty Works for Fifty States, that is, a collection of 50 works for a museum in each state (MOCA in LA, the Weizman on the University of Minnesota campus, etc.). That is apparently the focus of a sequel also directed by Sasaki, “Herb & Dorothy 50X50,” which is listed as in postproduction on IMDB.
The DVD includes seventeen minutes of deleted scenes, some of them cut from rather than deleted, film festival and NYC premiere appearances (with some Vogels Q&A), theatrical and PBS trailers.
As cinema, the documentary is unimpressive. It has the charm and oddity of the Vogels going for it, but for me is too “Gee whiz!” and unprobing(/uncritical) and repetitious to earn a fourth star from me. Perhaps if I was convinced that conceptual art is “art” I would be more satisfied with the celebration of its collection?
©2012, Stephen O. Murray