By Mark Borchardt on 4th December 2014
In “Herb & Dorothy,” a film by Megumi Sasaki, a lifelong married couple embody the true love of collecting art – and once a piece is bought and brought into the loving, curatorial confines of their cramped apartment, that work is never sold again. This has been going on for decades and their humble abode is packed floor to ceiling as a no-holds-barred indicator of that passion, stuffed with books, boxes and of course art – filling every nook and cranny literally.
So, meet Herb and Dorothy Vogel. They are a diminutive couple in physical stature but a revered powerhouse team in the realm of aesthetic appreciation and to whom artist Chuck Close concurs, “I always thought of them as mascots of the art world.” The lifelong New Yorkers rigorously collected art (mostly works concurrent of the time) with minimal money, yet over the decades their collection has acquired an astounding depth and even includes the likes of Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons.
They’ve been married for 45 years at the time of this 2008 documentary and the first place they headed on their honeymoon in Washington D.C. was the National Gallery of Art and that’s where our story also ends – but we’ll get to that.
Throughout their illustrious career of collecting they’ve fostered lifelong relationships with prominent artists in the city, have been written up in many newspaper and magazines and have even appeared on “60 Minutes” and Charlie Rose’s show.
Herb was raised in the city and Dorothy was born upstate in a small town. They don’t have any children “but a lot of cats” – add to that – aquariums full of fish and turtles as well. Along with the art and the love of animals they also share an affinity for films, theatre and restaurants; so as we encounter them, we know that they’re on the same page and any slights of bickering possess the soft contours of a loving couple. And Dorothy reveals you could count the times they’ve been apart on one hand.
In his earlier years, Herb frequented the famously storied Cedar Tavern, the boisterous realm where enclaves of artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning held buoyant court into the wee hours. Mr. Vogel not only hit the pages – a high school dropout, he more than made up for his disinterest in general education by a preternaturally autodidactic one pouring over art books in the library – but the streets as well. Artist Lucio Pozzi points out about Herb‘s intensity of studying work, “He comes in and points to the art like a hound.”
It was Herb who introduced Dorothy to art and together they even took courses to take it up for themselves. Both became set on careers as painters. But soon they realized that the art that they had created was coming off the walls and being replaced by the ones they were purchasing from others. And in one uncanny scene, Dorothy pulls their work out of a chest, the canvases having been folded up and laid by the wayside of their lives. It’s pretty weird if you think about it, that they had stuffed their own careers into a trunk and never looked back.
They enacted a financial strategy to go about their fervent acquisitions. With Dorothy’s salary the rent and bills were paid and with Herb’s, the art was bought. Susanna Singer, an artist’s rep, makes clear, “Herb and Dorothy’s passion for art was equal to the passion that artists have for art.” And as we pay a visits to artists such as James Siena, Richard Tuttle, Larry Weiner and Robert Mangold, they also verify the couple‘s fascinating fervor.
Initially, on their budget they could only afford Minimalist art – good thing because at the time, no one else was much interested in it. But they never let finances deter them and Chuck Close notes of the earnest couple, “They came cash in hand” which was a damn good thing for starving artists at the time. Another artist recalls that when seeing the prodigious buyers approach it readily came to mind: “It’s the Vogel’s, we’re going to pay the rent.”
On a quick intrinsic note, I appreciated Julie Salamon’s brief appearance at an art opening. A writer for the New York Times, she had written “The Devil’s Candy,“ a fascinating book on the making of Brian De Palma’s “Bonfire of the Vanities.” A read I thoroughly enjoyed.
Back to it. During bouts of financial hard times, the Vogel’s could have sold a painting or two to save themselves but they never went that route. It just wasn’t an option for them; what they brought home, stayed home and it wasn’t going anywhere else. Until, that is, they eventually chose to donate it. And that’s what brings us back around to the start of our story.
They decide to gift their immense collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. And when the vast archive of aesthetic treasure was hauled to the venerated institution for assessment, people couldn’t believe the density of the trove; there was just so much of it – and the movers couldn’t fathom that so much could fit in so little of a space. The apartment was truly a pressure cooker of art.
More than 2,000 paintings, sculptures and the like were received but the institute realized it could only accommodate half that amount so the remaining work was distributed to a select art museum in each of the fifty States. Their life’s work was generously given for us all to enjoy.
And the streets of New York, the impassioned arteries of conduit that led Herb and Dorothy on their insatiable quests to galleries, openings and the studios of artists, continue to be their home as they dutifully hobble forward now in their determined elder years.