Imagine amassing one of the most important collections of contemporary art on a postal worker's salary. Collecting art like a wino collects bottles, your nights are filled with studio visits and exhibition openings as you accumulate piles of artwork, crowding your home from floor to ceiling with objects created by blue chip artists-in-the-making. As the artists gain notoriety, you realize you must care for your investment, and you cover the more delicate works with blankets to protect them. No longer able to see them, their presence still brings you joy. You squirrel away priceless art like there's no tomorrow, and you have an exceptional eye for pieces that few people will ever understand. You collect religiously for nearly fifty years, and you never look back. Then, when your one-bedroom apartment is bursting, about ready to cave from the weight of your multiple truckloads of artwork, you give it all away. You are Dorothy and Herb Vogel, and your passion for art is "equal to the passion that artists have for art." You are obsessed.
The Vogels were a fixture on the New York art scene and were the kind of collectors artists considered friends. They pet-sat for Jean Claude and Christo's cat, Gladys, in exchange for a collage study for Valley Falls. They purchased a source photo for a Chuck Close portrait and framed it without removing the masking tape the artist had applied to reframe the image. They convinced Richard Tuttle to rip a few sheets out of a book of drawings he'd planned to keep intact. They installed conceptual works by Sol Lewitt and Lawrence Weiner in their shower. They collected in depth, utterly dedicated to New York art and culture.
The Vogels' story is captured from all sides in Megumi Sasaki's new film, Herb and Dorothy, creating what seems like a genuine portrait of their lives. Their early years are revealed when Dorothy is disappointed to find an old trunk of paintings Herb made but none of her own -- they started out as "wannabe artists," she explains. Their childlike excitement shines through when they have their photo taken under The Gates and debate its genre, "It's a combination of everything, a happening, an event, and art," they declare. The intensity of their hoarding becomes more obvious when a National Gallery curator, Jack Cowart, describes his "curatorial alarm bells" sounding upon first sight of the apartment packed with valuable artworks -- cohabiting with cats and potentially leaky fish tanks. Herb's lifelong, down-to-earth connection to the art world is apparent when he mentions drinking at Cedar Tavern with Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, but leaving early because he had to work. Both Herb and Dorothy claim the collection wouldn't have been possible without each other; their mutual adoration adds many endearing moments to the film.The couple is considered phenomenal in their voracious, thrifty collecting habits but also in their decision to donate their holdings to the National Gallery in Washington D.C., where Dorothy got her first art lesson from Herb on their honeymoon. They favored the museum because of its free admission and its promise never to sell acquisitions. But the museum could only absorb so much (1,000 pieces), and so the Vogels initiated the "Fifty Artworks for Fifty States" plan, giving museums across the country a selection from their collection. By the end of this year, the art will be on view for you and me, thanks to Herb and Dorothy. Let's give them a round of applause.
Herb and Dorothy is playing June 19th at the Lumiere Theater.