n 1992, it took several forty-foot long moving vans to empty the art collection from Herb & Dorothy’s small one bedroom rental in New York City. Works were collected over four decades and shoehorned into every available crevice of their living space. Jack Cowart, former curator of the National Gallery of Art described his first visit to see their collection: “I was stunned when they opened the door. It upset all of my alarm systems as a curator, because, I began to think, uh oh, what if there’s a fire, what if one of the mega-gallon fish tanks that Herb keeps his fish in springs a leak? Here we have a whole culture of decades of New York vanguard art that is going to turn into mush.” He continued, ”This apartment was basically above critical mass. It was holding more works and more things in it than any apartment should be asked to do.”
The team of art handlers declared, “Dorothy, Herb, we’re emptying this apartment so now you can go get that couch back. And you can really put in a chair, a comfy chair, and you could sit down and relax.” Several weeks later under the direction of Cowart, more than two-thousand works of art were carefully packaged and semi-secretly shipped to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. for inventory, registration, condition checks, and photography.
The story behind Herb & Dorothy Vogel is an amazing one, not because they had mastered the art of cramming thousands of pieces of art into small spaces, but because of how and why they collected. Herb was a former postal clerk, Dorothy a librarian, and both shared a passion for art. Starting off as painters themselves, they soon realized that their own art was not as interesting or as good as the other artists around them ― and so they began collecting instead.
Living only off of Dorothy’s working-class salary, they spent Herb’s earnings on building their collection. When they started gallery hopping in the 60s, pop art and abstract expressionism was already too expensive for their budget, so they focused on more affordable art which happened to be the conceptual and minimal stuff that many were not interested in, and considered to be unlikeable. The Vogels, however, were very likable and struck up lifelong friendships with many artists including Richard Tuttle, Sol LeWitt, Chuck Close, Robert Mangold, and even Christo and Jeanne-Claude. “Above all,” Dorothy explained, “the rewards we got from collecting art is knowing the artists; getting to know them and understanding them.”
The Vogels arrived to the galleries or artists’ studios with cash in hand, and liked to buy four or more works at a time if they could afford it. Their only rules for buying were that (a) they must be able to carry the work away by foot, subway or taxi, and (b) it must be able to fit into their tiny apartment. They refused to accept any work for free, and in some cases, bartered with the artists. One endearing story involved them spending a summer catsitting for Christo & Jeanne-Claude in trade for Collage of Valley Curtain.
In 2004, filmmaker Megumi Sasaki met the Vogels at an event honoring Christo & Jeanne-Claude. The Vogel story intrigued Sasaki so much that she decided to direct her first documentary on them. It’s impossible not to be charmed by this couple, especially after watching the film. There is a memorable scene with artist Will Barnet describing the way that Herb & Dorothy looked at art; Dorothy stood vertically, restrained, and “took a position of thoughtfulness”, whereas Herb would get excited and run towards the art, bent in for intense examination. This position of the vertical and horizontal excited Barnet, and in 1977, he produced a drawing of it. I always thought this drawing had perfectly captured the Vogel’s intrinsic ability to really see art. Here, The Collectors is not simply a title for two people who like to collect tangible things. More importantly, they are collectors of friendships, and are constantly filling their heads with beauty, a place, unlike their apartment, can never be too full.
The documentary of Herb & Dorothy is now out on DVD and iTunes, and I highly recommend seeing it. My main critique is not within the movie, but with the movie poster itself (see first image above) and the similarly designed DVD jacket. While it’s visually interesting, I don’t think it’s visually relevant nor does it sell me on the film. The cloud of colored names mean nothing without prior knowledge, and the photo of Herb & Dorothy feels somewhat guarded. Barnet’s drawing, on the other hand, displays an action, evokes familiarity, and sparks curiosity. And because it’s a simple drawing, you focus less on the clothes, the cat, and more on what the couple is doing. The modified poster below is my attempt to inject more meaning into it. What are your thoughts?
More Herb & Dorothy
February 22, 2010
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abstract expressionism, art collection, artwork, cats, christo, chuck close, college of valley curtain, conceptual art, documentary, dorothy vogel, fine art, herb and dorothy, herb vogel, jack cowart, jeanne-claude, megumi sasaki, minimal art, Minimalism, Movie, national gallery of art, painting, pop art, portrait, richard tuttle, robert mangold, sol lewitt, vogel collection, vogels, washington d.c., will barnet