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He was a postal clerk. She was a librarian. With their modest means, the couple managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history. Meet Herb and Dorothy Vogel, whose shared passion and discipline have defied stereotypes and redefined what it means to be an art collector. Written by
The Vogels are a couple of modest means but focused passion who assembled a world-class art collection buying small, affordable works but choosing wisely and with love and living for art. They married in 1960 and collected from the ideal vantage point of New York City. He was a postal worker, sorting mail at night, and she was a librarian in Brooklyn Heights. They used his salary for the purchases and hers for the rent of their small one-bedroom rent-controlled apartment and other living expenses. He had the expertise, but she caught on; and they are inseparable. Both were open-minded and excited by what they found. They focused on minimal, conceptual, and verbal art because that was what they could afford. Abstract expressionism was fading and Pop Art was rising They were "greedy," someone says (a Who's Who of artists appear on screen to talk abut the couple, who were famous in the New York art world by 1970). "You like to buy four at a time," an artist says. "No, forty," jokes Herbie.
They were single-minded, and their apartment filled up. They have cats and tropical fish and turtles but never had children. After work they got together and went to galleries, or visited artists, from whom they bought directly. Most of the artists they bought from were unknown then and desperately needed money. The Vogels had the same dedication and indifference to necessary poverty the artists had. And theirs has been a life in art as rich as any artist's.
When they finally called Christo and Jeanne-Claude, she picked up the phone and said "It's the Vogels! We're going to pay the rent this month." But when they came and heard the prices of sketches of the coming Christo project, Valley Curtain, Herb said, "Oh, we came too late!" They were priced to fund the couple's costly environmental artworks. But when Christo and Jeanne-Claude went to Colorado to finish Valley Curtain, they gave the Vogels a drawing in exchange for taking care of their cat, Gladys while they were away.
The Vogels collected work by, among others, Chuck Close, Pat Steir, Lida Benglis, Robert Mangold, Sol Lewitt, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Richard Long, Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons, and Richard Tuttle. All these artists' work eventually have come to be worth megabucks, but the Vogels would sooner have amputated a limb as sell an artwork. Speculating is fine, and may help the artists, Herb says, but not for them. Not all the artists they collected are famous, but they love them all.
Their first Lewitt was tall, and they traded it for a horizontal one; he must have delivered both, because they liked to buy smaller works that they could take with them in a taxi. And they kept everything somewhere in the apartment.
Filmmaker Sasaki has done an excellent job of assembling voices. Sylvia Mangold, Chuck Close Lynda Benglis, Pat Steir, Robert Barry, Lucio Pozzi and Lawrence Weiner are some of the main artists who talk about the Vogels' passion and skill and friendship. There are also museum curators. The film makes clear the Vogels are famous collectors, chronicled and celebrated in many articles (books will surely come). It may take some time for this to sink in. This cute little old couple -- they are old now, the long necked, erect woman with her big round glasses, the little man hunched forward, focusing on an art work he wants like a beagle pointing a bird, unswerving, obsessed. They're sweet, but they're relentless, a life force. Chuck Close calls them "the mascots of the New York art world." Surprisingly, there is plenty of period footage of them from earlier decades, gallery-going, being interviewed, being greeted at openings by artists or gallery owners as honored guests. At the post office Herbie revisits (he retired in 1980) we learn he kept his fame and passion secret and found nobody who wanted to talk about art there anyway.
Many museums sought the collection and the couple always said no. When they didn't say no to the National Gallery in Washington (which they had visited on their honeymoon) curators came calling a few years ago (the film is a bit vague about the time-line) and they agreed to donate. Only to consider this offer, the National Gallery had to catalogue the collection's over 2000 pieces, and this was impossible in the limited space, so the art works had to be crated piece by piece and shipped to Washington for evaluation. It too five giant moving vans to transport the collection from the little one-bedroom apartment. It was packed so tight. The National's rule (a reason for the Vogels' confidence) is that donations it accepts can never be deaccessioned; hence eventually the museum decided it could only accept half the works. So a program has been set up to travel the other works around the fifty states. This is called the Vogel 50x50 program.
The film also shows Herbie and Dorhty together in many scenes that convey their keen memory, precise knowledge, and love of the works they've collected. You see Herb doing his beagle thing, zeroing in on a small early John Chamberlain piece and explaining why it's every bit as representative and good as a larger Chamberlain and how unusual that is.
The donation cleared room in the jammed apartment so the Vogels could move around a bit, and as the curator thought, acquire a little more furniture. The museum pays them an annuity to keep them financially secure. But instead of using that to buy furniture, they just went out and bought more art, though Dorothy did buy a laptop so she can email.
In a way Herb and Dorothy are like Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The finances have certainly been different, but both are couples who have lived spartanly and basically put every available penny into art. There is much to inspire artists and collectors in these two extraordinary and dedicated couples.
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